Saturday, March 16, 2013

Two Important Live Events and a Significant DVD

If you are looking for something to do this evening, Saturday, March 16, let me pull your coat to two live events that are worth a trip into the winter weather.

I have a longstanding relationship with the Rockland Country Jewish Film Festival, having been a guest speaker there many times. Circumstance precludes my repeating that role this year, regrettably, but I want to draw your attention to their April schedule, which is one of their strongest ever, and to a special World Premiere they are having tonight at 8:30 p.m of  Twenty Million Minutes, a new documentary that retraces the story of the local Jewish Community Center's attempt to get the International Olympic Committee to authorize a minute of silence at last summer's London games in recognition of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. It's a great topic and an uphill battle and, given the constant and utterly undeserved encomia to the 'Olympic ideal' in the U.S., a nice corrective. You can find more information on their website.


 Ironically, my own Washington Heights Film Class is holding the first of this year's four "Meet the Filmmaker" nights at almost the exact same time, albeit a few miles south, and we'll be having what amounts to a New York public premiere of Adam Orman's Fifth Form.

Fifth Form: The joys of being a senior

Fifth Form iis a wry look at adolescence and identity, with Josh (Jonah Rosenthal) a bright Jewish teen entering his first year at a posh boarding school as US is poised on the edge of the first Gulf War. He becomes involved in a series of Animal House-type antics that quickly escalate beyond the playful. The resulting disaster forces him to take a hard look at who he is becoming and what he wants to be. I like this film (even though the director is a friend of mine!). Adam mixes moods quite deftly, the comedy is funny without being gross, and the denouement is thoughtful and deeply felt.

The screening will take place at our usual lemonade stand, the Social Hall of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation (Ft. Washington Avenue and 185th St.) at 7 p.m. Needless to say, Orman will be present to take questions and talk about the exigencies of indie film production.(Given that Adam is a fellow Ira voter, there is a chance that other fabled members of the Brethren will be in attendance.) Admission will be $15, but it's free for class members and you can join on the spot at the pro-rated price of $70/50 for seniors.

 As I have said here before, 2012 was an excellent year for documentaries, and you'd have to look hard to find a better example than Chanoch Ze'evi's Hitler's Children. The film, which played theatrically in New York City in November (and is on offer at the Rockland event next month), is distributed by Film Movement and, as is their practice, will be available to their subscribers on DVD shortly, accompanied by an appropriate short.

When the film came out I wrote the following in Jewish Week:

The Torah enjoins us to honor our parents. But if your family were monstrous criminals who killed hundreds of thousands, even millions, what is your responsibility? As Katrin Himmler, Heinrich Himmler’s grand-niece, says in the new documentary film “Hitler’s Children,” “At what point does it become impossible to love those parents?”

The film, directed by Israeli documentarian Chanoch Ze’evi, is as cunningly structured as a good thriller, and just as taut. Ze’evi moves deftly between five descendants of infamous Nazis, parceling out revelations judiciously. Aided in no small part by the crisp editing of Arik Lahav Leibovitz, “Hitler’s Children” is a much needed and too brief look at the Shoah from a different point of view. The film opens Friday, November 16.

The five subjects of the film are Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, the head of the occupation government of Poland; Himmler, grand-niece of the head of the SS and Gestapo and one of Hitler’s closest associates; Bettina Göring, grand-niece of Herman, the head of the Luftwaffe and a central figure in the Nazi regime; Rainer Hoess, grandson of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf; and Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, and a central figure in “Schindler’s List.” While their reactions to knowledge of their families’ dark past is uniformly negative, ranging from strong distaste to outright revulsion and loathing, those reactions manifest themselves in wildly different ways.

Frank was eight years old when his father was executed after being found guilty at the Nuremburg tribunal.  He has written a scathing book about his father and his crimes; he travels across Germany and Austria giving readings and talks to school groups. Frank by nature as well as name, he is blunt, even profane in his denunciation of the Nazis and his father’s role. Yet one comes away from the film with a strong sense that his compulsive need to re-enact this denunciation has gradually transformed itself from an ethical crusade into a ritual of self-cleansing and self-abasement. 

Niklas Frank with students in Hitler's Children

By contrast Göring, who now lives in Santa Fe, NM, seems to have sought out a kind of refuge in a mixture of New Age isolation combined with a nostalgia for an older German folk culture untainted by the events of the 1930s and ‘40s. Both she and her brother chose to be sterilized rather than carry on the family name. “I inherited their s**t,” she says bluntly. “There won’t be any more Görings.”

Himmler, like Frank, has written and published a family history, “The Himmler Brothers.” Also like Frank, her publication divided the surviving family members, but probably no more so than her marriage to an Israeli son of survivors.

Hertwig seems deeply haunted by the gradual process of learning about her father. More than any of the other participants in the film, she seems a badly damaged adult, a reality that is emphasized by Ze’evi’s pitiless close-ups of her deeply lined face with its death-haunted, staring eyes and her tremulous voice and quivering lips. She seems to relish recounting stories of confiding her identity to a local bar owner who was a victim of her father’s sadism, and her shocked reaction to Spielberg’s vision of her father as casual tormentor.

Perhaps the central figure of the film, though, is Rainer Hoess who is obsessed with a package of photos left by his father that show the apparently idyllic childhood he enjoyed in the commandant’s villa adjoining Auschwitz. There is a photo of a gate that leads to the camp, “the gate to Hell,” Rainer calls it, a particular talisman for Rudolf’s grandson. “They must have looked through that gate,” he says of his father and his aunts. “What did they see? What did they know?” He goes to Auschwitz to find some kind of answer, accompanied by his friend Eldad Beck, the Berlin correspondent of Yediot Ahronot, a third-generation survivor,  many of whose family members were murdered there. In the course of their trip to the death camp, Rainer finally looks through that gate himself. He also meets a group of young Israeli students and, when asked what he would say to his grandfather today, he replies, “I would kill him myself.”

The great achievement of “Hitler’s Children” is not merely a cinematic one, that Ze’evi manages to keep the film moving between its five protagonists so gracefully without short-changing any of their stories. That is a considerable feat itself, but the real triumph of the film is in its larger thematic quest, a pitiless attempt to show what happens to people who are forced by to try to normalize and understand the uniquely atrocious circumstances of their upbringing, to examine what Niklas Frank calls “a happy childhood in a sea of blood.”

As Frank bitterly tells the filmmakers, “We really must do justice to parents like that, yes.”

A highly recommended film indeed. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Lots of Good Things Coming Up

Goodness. Where to begin?

How about this? Playboy is now going to publish a Hebrew-language edition. Perfect for the khevre who read it for the articles.

On a more serious but very pleasant note, some new and recent films worth your attention.

Hava Nagila: The Movie, a new documentary by Roberta Grossman, starts out in the smart-alecky tone that seems to have become de rigeur for lightweight docs these days. Certainly the song is the epitome as kitsch Judaica, although it didn't start out that way, as the film makes clear. Slowly, though, Grossman reveals a refreshingly serious agenda as she touches on the battle for the hearts and minds of Jewish-Americans between Zionists and Yiddishists. Anyone who has read my music writing in Jewish Week knows which side of that fight I come down on, at least musically. (Politically, it's a lot more complicated.) The result is a film that is both sprightly and amusing but with a serious subtext that gives it some heft.

The magnificent Mr. B, splendidly ageless

 At the very least, it's worth it just to see Harry Belafonte, who still looks downright God-like at 86. You can find current showings here.

On the DVD front, I have three quick recommendations to pass along.

Ross McElwee, as some readers know, is a great favorite in our house. The BW and I are fond of his casual, slightly self-deprecating tone, his honesty and his seemingly offhand but actually quite rigorous filmmaking practice. His most recent film, last year's Photographic Memory, was shorter than usual at a mere 87 minutes and, perhaps as a result, felt a little like a throwaway. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine two narrative threads that could possibly be closer to McElwee's (right-on-his-sleeve) heart than a his differences with his son, and a return to the scene of first loves in Brittany. As usual, he manages to integrate the seemingly unconnected materials in inventive and satisfying ways, making fine use of older footage and offering mordant commentary throughout. Photographic Memory isn't a major achievement on a par with Sherman's March or Time Indefinite, his masterpieces, but it's full of lovely grace notes and certainly deserves to find a wider audience. You can find it here.

Pip Chodorov is one of the unsung heroes of independent film. I don't mean the crap that Indiewire spends too much of its time extolling, films that are basically smarter versions of studio stuff with smaller budgets. I mean films that you are not likely to see at all unless you are fortunate enough to live somewhere that there's a venue where experimental film is regularly programmed. The people whose work he supports through 
various film co-ops in his adopted home of Paris are the ones I'm talking about. He pays homage to those folks in his recent documentary, Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film, which is coming out on DVD this month. It's a delightful, warm and funny piece of filmmaking, focussing on filmmakers who have influenced Chodorov's own thinking about cinema, including some of the usual suspects like Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, but also some less expected ones, like Hans Richter and Maurice Lemaitre. I did an interview with Chodorov when the film played Anthology last summer, which you can read here. And you can find the DVD here. Highly recommended.

When Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, Sophie Fiennes's film about Anselm Kiefer, came out last year, I wrote of it:

Anselm Kiefer’s enormous canvases, sculptures and installations are considerably better known in the United States than Svetlana Geier’s translations [subject of another documentary released at the same time]. Born in Germany a month before the end of the Second World War, he has been exploring images redolent of, and frequently inspired by, the poetry of Paul Celan, stark works of art that evoke the ashes of the Shoah, haunted by echoes of Lurianic kabbalah, of which he speaks elegantly during Over Your Cities. In 1993, Kiefer left Germany and settled in the French town of Barjac, where he bought an abandoned silk factory and its considerable grounds. Since then he has transformed the place into a huge, complex art space housing his gigantic works. But more than that Barjac is itself an environmental art piece, an intricate collection of tunnels, underground passages, corridors and bunkers, eerily echoing the half-remembered images of the camps and the Reichsbunker, and the poetic images of shattered and buried cities of the prophetic writings.

Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph, who clearly has a very different artistic agenda) reveals this quite frankly astonishing site in a series of hypnotically rigorous camera movements through these spaces, calling on viewers to drink in the range of textures and materials, forms and spaces and, most tellingly, Kiefer’s subdued palette of grays and browns. These sections, brilliantly scored by sound designer Ranko Paukovic using the music of Gyorgy Ligeti and Jorg Widmann, are sharply contrasted by equally absorbing footage of Kiefer and his team of artisans crafting the exhibits that fill the many buildings on the location. The film also features a long, fascinating interview with Kiefer by a visiting German journalist in which he invokes the broken vessels of the Creation (via Luria) and speaks affectionately of kabbalistic numerology: “they count the letters of the words, they lose their original meaning, and it becomes completely religious.”

Above all else, though, Over Your Cities is a visually lush experience that must be seen on a big screen, with a big sound system and none of the distractions of a living room and DVD player. I doubt if there will be a more dazzling and beautiful-looking film released this year.

I must confess that the DVD is quite lovely and having it merely firms up my resolve to upgrade our home media center pronto. If you already have state-of-the-art equipment, you need this DVD. If not, you need to buy better tech and then get this DVD. You won't regret it. 

Finally, the estimable Agnes Varda will be in my town with a bunch of her films on Sunday, March 9. I received an e-mail to that effect earlier today and pass it along for your information:


March 05, 2013



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Agnès Varda at e-flux
Saturday March 9, 7pm

311 East Broadway
NY 10002
T  212 619 3356

Join us for a special evening of screenings and conversation with the legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda, introduced by Molly Nesbit.
As the only female director of the French New Wave and a key member of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) cinema movement, Agnès Varda became a force in art cinema. She describes her style as cinécriture (writing on film), and conceived many of her films as political and feminist statements, often crossing genres as she proceeded, always formally daring her viewer to look where before they had only overlooked. The results, whether fictional or actual, produce radical documents of unforgettable people. Her most well-known works include: Cléo from 5 to 7Happiness (Le Bonheur – Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival), Vagabond (Sans Toit Ni Loi – Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), Jacquot (Jacquot de Nantes), and the autobiographical documentaries; The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse – Golden Prize Chicago) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d'Agnès). In the past decade she has turned as well to installation work and has been exhibited widely.

Molly Nesbit is Chair and Professor in the Department of Art at Vassar College as well as a contributing editor of Artforum. She has written the books Atget's Seven Albums (1992) and Their Common Sense (2000), and since 2002, together with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Molly Nesbit has tri-curated Utopia Station, an ongoing book, exhibition, seminar, website and street project. Her new book, The Pragmatism in the History of Art, will be published this spring by Periscope Press.