Category Archives: Boston Jewish Film Festival

“WINTERHUNT” (“WINTERJAGD”)— A Psycho Thriller

“Winter Hunt” (“Winterjagd)

A Psycho-thriller

Amos Lassen

One cold, wintry night, Lena (Carolyn Genzkow) shows up at the Rossberg family mansion. She claims her car has broken down, but her arrival is intentional. Lena is in pursuit of Anselm Rossberg (Michael Degen), an aged Auschwitz guard who lives with his daughter Maria (Elisabeth Degen). Anselm and Maria both deny Anselm’s past, but Lena is determined to get him to confess. At first Maria denies her father’s guilt. At the same time, the story of Anselm Rossberg is being dealt with in the media.

Maria tries to get rid Lena but Maria, who has been living in the shadow of her overpowering father and his controversial past for decades now wants to find the true motives of the young woman. And when Lena brings a horrendous charge against Rossberg at a relentless family court and Rossberg pleads for his life as his daughter faces a great moral decision.

The film by director Astrid Schult tells the story of three people and three generations.Anselm Rossberg is 90-years-old and at first Maria tries to defend him by saying that he is not at home. However, Lena finds him and threatens him at gunpoint. She accuses him boldly about his role at Auschwitz and we see that it is not only Maria who faces a moral dilemma but so do Lena and Rossberg.

The film is very tense and viewers sit on the edge of their seats as we too become part of the moral crisis.I find myself having great difficulty trying to assess the quality of the film since it affects us so deeply. This is not a film that is comfortable to watch but it is an important film as we realize that it is not always easy to understand another generation that was determined to see the end of the Jewish people.

“ETCHED IN GLASS: THE LEGACY OF STEVE ROSS”— Finding a Second Life

“Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross”

Finding a Second Life

Amos Lassen

We have had so many stories and films about the Holocaust that for one to have something new to say, it must really be special and special is “Etched in Glass”. The film is the real-life story of how one remarkable Polish man found a second life in America and dedicating his life to helping people. This is the story of Steve Ross who spent five terrible and horrific years in ten concentration camps when he was a child and then spent the rest of his life in the service of his adopted country, America, as he searched for the American soldier who helped free him from “the gates of hell” and the most terrible time in the history of the world. I do not know Steve Ross but I am still new to Boston but I have known stories like this as well as others from having lived with Holocaust survivors on my kibbutz in Israel. Perhaps that is why I opened this review the way that I did.   I am worried that too many stories could lessen the impact of what we have to know about German anti-Semitism during the period around World War II.

Steve Ross, along with others, tells us about his survival, his emigration to the United States and his resettlement in the Boston area. We meet Ross’ first and oldest friend in America who is now a retired surgeon and we learn how Steve coped with his first taste of American life.

We follow Ross from being a shy timid orphan to becoming a licensed psychologist. We see how he changed lives over and over again, by getting kids off the streets and away from crime. and into the classroom. We meet a man who was saved from a life of crime, urged to get an education and who became a successful attorney and who feels that he owes his life to Steve Ross, his mentor. Ross worked his own way through college are earned three degrees just so he could be an advocate and advisor to young, at-risk people who needed help most and this is what he has done for over 40 years. Steve Ross is also responsible for the founding of the New England Holocaust Memorial. We learn how it came about with the aid of former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and the idea being fostered with tenacity by Ross.

There was initial opposition but the now-iconic memorial stands on Boston’s Freedom Trail and it is there in order to educate and enlighten thousands of visitors each week.

On Veterans’ Day at the ceremony at Boston’s State House on November 11, 2012, the film ends emotionally. It is there that Ross finally meets the family of the soldier who liberated him from Dachau after a 67-year search (thanks to an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” found on You Tube by the granddaughter of the soldier). This is an amazing and touching story not only about Steve Ross but also about the union of 2 families who were brought together by the good deed of a soldier who showed kindness to a teenage boy near death. Like other Holocaust films, this is a story of survival, perseverance and hope. Unlike other Holocaust films, this has Steve Ross.

“BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY”— Music! Music! Music!

“Bang! The Bert Berns Story”

Music! Music! Music!

Amos Lassen

“Bang! The Bert Berns Story” is narrated by musician and actor Steven Van Zandt and the first part is interesting in that it is not at all interesting as compared with Berns’ later years. His early years are somewhat pedestrian and it almost seems that he willed himself to be creative so he could escape his ordinary background.

Growing up in the Bronx, Berns was exposed to a wide variety of music in his youth and Manhattan was nearby, which meant that that there were plenty music publishers. aplenty were available to reject him. Eventually one recognized his potential and he began working as a songwriter in 1961 and his first hit came in the following year. Among his earliest hits, the most famous is probably “Twist and Shout,” which he co-wrote. He quickly learned about the power of record producers, and realized his own limitations as a singer so Berns became a producer as for a variety of labels.

That led to further opportunities with the famed Atlantic Records. By the time Berns came along, the label was in need of hits, and Berns delivered. His titles included Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which he produced, though he did not share in the writing of the latter. The records he made influenced young British bands like the Beatles, who recorded their own version of “Twist and Shout,” and the Rolling Stones (“Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” ).

As Berns’ career skyrocketed so did his reputation. Those interviewed in the documentary all speak warmly about their working relationships.(But then he co-directed this with his son so of course we hear only good things). Berns preferred encouraging his recording artists rather than demeaning them or shouting at them, and helped to produce good recordings.

The documentary is filled with great stories. Berns befriended a good variety of people in his lifetime, and his more criminally minded friends proved to be extremely helpful when it came to certain business dealings — all of which is remembered in an amusing tone. As a child, Berns began suffering from a heart condition, which would plague him periodically through the years and eventually cut his life short. His musical career lasted less than ten years and it is quite amazing to see how deeply the music he wrote and/or produced still continues to resonate.

Berns was known in some musical circles as “the white soul brother” and I learned that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was in awe of his songwriting talent. Janis Joplin covered “Piece of My Heart” and caught all its heartbreak. “Hang on Sloopy” has been loved by many through the years and other notable songs include “Here Comes the Night, ” “Cry Baby,” and “Cry to Me.” He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but many are still unaware of Bert Berns, a Jewish kid from the Bronx who lived a fast and furious life and who died 1967 at the age of 38.

During his youth, Berns spent years in isolation after rheumatic fever scarred his heart. He used the time to learn to play piano and guitar. Early on, he discovered the high cost of making a mark in the music business— it was a business filled with power plays, violence, pay-offs, and more. We see the ease with which the creative people involved celebrate the rock & pop vitality of his songs. We hear from greats including Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ben King, Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid, Solomon Burke and others.

His career only spanned eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image. In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo and he brought his love of Latin rhythms into his music. He began working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm and wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay that eventually caught the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. He nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records and he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it.

“HEATHER BOOTH: CHANGING THE WORLD”— “The Most Influential Person You Never Heard Of’

“Heather Booth: Changing the World”

“The Most Influential Person You Never Heard Of’

Amos Lassen

Heather Booth is a renowned organizer and activist who began her remarkable career at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last fifty years: from her involvement with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Summer Project, to her founding of the JANE Underground in 1964, to her personal relationships with respected leaders such as Julian Bond and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Through interviews with close friends, clients, political colleagues and current Midwest Academy students, director Lily Rivlin explores Heather’s legacy in progressive politics and organizing.

Booth at 71, is one of the nation’s most influential organizers for progressive causes. For the last 50 years, Booth has been there fighting for fair pay, equal justice, abortion rights, workers’ rights, voter rights, civil rights, immigration rights, child care and wherever there is inequality. She has improved the lives of tens of millions of Americans who never knew her name.

In the film, Booth describes her first entry into activism when, in her early teens, she stood by herself in New York City’s Times Square handing out leaflets urging an end to the death penalty. Booth was a founder of the modern women’s movement, a role that started in 1964 when she helped set up the covert abortion network. This began when she learned that a friend was pregnant. She recruited other volunteers and other doctors. Eventually it became on ongoing organization called the Jane Underground. By some estimates, the Jane Underground group helped secure between 11,000 and 13,000 abortions for women in need between 1965 and 1973, when the Supreme Court finally legalized abortions in “Roe v. Wade”.

Booth has trained and mentored some of the nation’s most effective and influential organizers and activists. She has worked with liberal and progressive groups and activists that include MoveOn, the NAACP, USAction, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Alliance for Citizenship and the Voter Participation Center, to the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Center for Community Change.

This film explores many of the most pivotal moments in progressive movements that altered our history over the last fifty years through the lens of Booth’s work. She combines a generosity of heart, a lifelong commitment to social justice, and a remarkable talent for inspiring others and thinking strategically.

“MUHI: GENERALLY TEMPORARY”— Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

“Muhi: Generally Temporary”

Transcending Identity, Religion and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Amos Lassen

Muhi is a young boy from Gaza who for the last seven years has been living in Tel HaShomer Hospital in near Tel Aviv, Israel. He lives in medical and political limbo at Tel HaShomer Hospital, east of Tel Aviv, Israel because of a rare disease that has caused his limbs to be amputated. During four years, co-director Israeli photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander, with American videographer Tamir Elterman, have intimately followed Mubi and his devoted and self-sacrificing grandfather Abu Naim.  Even Mubi’s name has become symbolic of the border that his suspicious father, heartbroken mother, siblings, and cousins can rarely cross from faction-torn Gaza. While his family calls him Muhammad; his affectionate Israeli caretakers have nicknamed him Muhi and include him in their Jewish observances.  

The film plays with emotions. Here is a disabled child overcoming adversity with infectiously good spirits while his isolation, dependence and adaptation are used as a prism through which we see the ironies, prejudices, difficulties and tensions of humanitarianism when first world medical care is just 43 miles from third-world conditions. This care is impacted by the bitter strife between Palestinians themselves and between Palestinians and Israelis

We see Muhi is as a migrant for medical care because of the limited facilities in Gaza. His dedicated grandfather’s life finds him in a Middle East limbo full of cultural contradictions and heartrending juxtapositions. While his family can only rarely get through the checkpoints to visit (and are not convinced the extreme treatment of limb amputation was necessary), his grandfather Abu Naim tries to maintain his grandson’s Arabic language and Islamic education. The caring Israelis, including his advocate and long-time peace activist Buma Inbar whose son was killed in war and who give him the Hebrew nickname “Muhi” and celebrates Jewish holidays with him.

When his grandfather finally gets a permit to work, the hospital, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to hire him as a translator or liaison for the many Arab patients and families and condescendingly employ him as a janitor. The prosthetic arms and legs, that give Muhammed the mobility to attend a rare bi-lingual school are not available in Gaza and will keep him waiting as he will need new ones as he grows. This is the kind of film that stays with us long after the screen goes dark and the lights come on.

“HUMOR ME”— A Happy Ending

“HUMOR ME”

A Happy Ending

Amos Lassen

Nate (Elliot Gould) is a playwright suffering from writer’s block and is unable to complete his latest play. He has been fired by his producer/agent C.C., Nate and also gets dumped by his wife Nirit who has found herself a billionaire who is able to give her the life to which she wants to become accustomed. Nate’s problem here is that Nirit who has been supporting him. Nonetheless, she leaves and takes their son Gabe with her leaving Nate with no job, no wife and no home. He has only one option and that is to go to New Jersey and stay with his dad Bob (Jemaine Clement) in a retirement community.

Nate’s father only keeps diet cream soda in the house and expects his son to earn his keep by doing chores makes Nate uncomfortable to say the least and soon we have comedic situations as we watch Nate refuse to become an adult. At the same time, Bob refuses to coddle or cater to his son. Eventually, things work themselves out in this sweet film filled with heart and humor.

Elliott Gould is perfect as Bob and his comedic timing is perfection. Going toe-to-toe with Gould is Jemaine Clement who, as Nate, brings his own often droll and sometimes hapless comic sensibilities to the role and shines with exasperation at every turn. The real fun happens when Gould and Clement share the screen. Writer/Director Sam Hoffman has found a great supporting cast that includes Priscilla Lopez, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth, Willie C. Carpenter and Ingrid Michaelson.

“LET YOURSELF GO”— Life Changes

“Let Yourself Go” (“Lasciati andare”)

Life Changes

Amos Lassen

A psychoanalyst named Elia (Toni Servillo) goes to the gym and meets a personal trainer who changes his life. Servillo lives and works in the Roman ghetto, a beautiful neighborhood in the historic city centre of Rome. He is separated from his wife Giovanna (Carla Signoris) but they still share a house with a very thin wall separating their respective bedrooms Dr. Elia Venezia lives a methodical and rather self-centered existence which only gets lively when his patients get weird.

Then, one day his blood sugar levels force him to go to the doctor, who tells him to shape up fast, puts him on a diet and prescribes exercise. Right after this, a Spanish personal trainer by the name of Claudia (Veronica Echegui), comes to his office and drags him into a swirling vortex of mishaps that breathe life back into his dull life.

Filmmaker Francesco Amato will undoubtedly be compared to Woody Allen based on this film yet he manages to find his own Italian way to Jewish comedy. The film takes a few minutes to warm up, with a few overly cold and intellectual jokes, after which Servillo and the others start to win over the audience, ending up in pure slapstick mode with the entrance on the scene of Luca Marinelli who plays a low-life robber who has escaped from prison to recover his spoils and turns to the psychoanalyst to have himself hypnotized so that he can remember where he buried the jewels. This is quite the JewishItalian screwball comedy.

Claudia challenges the doctor’s masculinity, social status, and general sense of well being. She leads him on a merry chase around Rome that changes his life. There’s smart, fast-paced dialogue and the performances are excellent all around.

“THE YOUNG KARL MARX”— The Early Years

“The Young Karl Marx” (“Le jeune Karl Marx”)

The Early Years

Amos Lassen

Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck introduces us to Karl Marx (August Diehl) in 1844, when he is 26 and living in Paris with his wife, Jenny (Vicky Krieps). Jenny is a woman from an aristocratic family who gave up on her fortune to share her life with “this socialist, atheist Jew”, as she lovingly calls him. They are surviving off the little bit of money that Marx makes from writing for philosophical and political journals that are soon going to be shut down by the French government.

At the same time in Manchester, Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is becoming increasingly bitter because of the working conditions in the factories that his father owns. He distances himself from his own class and becomes involved in circles of European philosophers and thinkers and this leads him to meeting and befriending Marx.

The two will develop a connection and eventually a considerable following made up of many different revolutionary thinkers of the time, including French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet) and German radical activist Wilhelm Weitling (Alexander Scheer), as well as the London-based League of the Just, which they will eventually become the Communist League.

The film is based primarily on the letters that Marx and Engels exchanged and it also gives us the political and social climate of the time, introducing us to important historical personalities and movements that are today partly forgotten, or not in our awareness. We are taken back in time to when strong-willed and thinking men developed connections and moved public opinion. The relationships that we see in the film are just as present and important as the historical struggles.

Aside from the Bible, no other book has shaped the last century more than Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. In three volumes, he totally dissected the class system that capitalism was built on and reached out to people all over the world to disrupt this exploitation. The film recounts Marx’s formative years as a young man and a rebel-rouser. Marx and Engels struggled for years to make their writing be understood by all audiences.

August Diehl plays the young Marx as a handsome rebel with a cause who’s ready to pick a fight with anyone who’ll listen. Vicky Krieps as his wife, Jenny; modern and astute in her own right, gives us charming relief while the dialogue struggles and often becomes banal exposition. Within a few years, Marx and Engles accomplished an unprecedented revolution of ideas. They broke with German idealism and placed the understanding of society on a materialistic basis discovering class struggle as the driving force of history and developed socialism from a utopia into a science.

While Stalinism destroyed the Soviet Union, Marxism is more relevant today than ever before. The global financial crisis, outrageous levels of social inequality, growing militarism, and the rise to prominence of extreme right-wing figures such as Donald Trump in the US—all of this has prompted many to turn to Marx to find a way out of the impasse of capitalism. Even Marx’s opponents are forced to take his insights seriously once again.

Director Peck is well aware of the timeliness of his theme. “At a time when the world is in a state of emergency due to the financial crisis, Karl Marx is experiencing unexpected interest today as the world finds itself in a financial crisis. The film sets out to discover the real contribution of Marx as a scientific and political thinker. The collaboration between Marx and Engels is the focus of much of the movie. Peck also looks at the contributions of Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen, and Engels’ wife Mary Burns, an Irish worker. We see how the two men inspire one another and develop a close personal friendship.

One of the main focal points of the film is Engels’ experience in England with his father’s textile business in Manchester where he worked as a clerk and saw the terrible living quarters of the working class. We see that it was Engels who pointed out to Marx the importance of the writings of the classical English economists.

The last third of the film deals with the activities of Marx and Engels in the League of the Just. It shows that even at that time they worked intensively to establish an international party of the working class. The film ends with the music of a Bob Dylan song and a rapid sequence of images of catastrophes, key events, political figures and protests of the past 100 years. It features images of Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba and the Occupy movement, but not of Lenin and Trotsky and the October Revolution. In this way, the film glorifies the type of petty-bourgeois politics that Marx, as the film vividly shows, entirely rejected.

“SUBTE: POLSKA”— A Character Study

“Subte:Polska”

A Character Study

Amos Lassen

“Subte: Polska” looks at the final chapter in the life of a 90-year old Argentine chess player who longs to recapture his past. He spends his days riding the subway lines of Buenos Aires that he helped to build as a young man and as he does, he faces his past.

As a young man, Tadeusz (Héctor Bidonde) left his entire family and the girl he loved behind in Poland in order to fight for the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. When the war was lost and the rise of fascism made it unsafe for a Jewish communist to return to Europe so he immigrated to Buenos Aires where he helped build the subway tunnels beneath the city. Now nearing the end of his life, he finds himself lost in reverie and desperate to recapture his mental abilities and sexual libido. He has refused the doctor’s pills because he believes that they are responsible for his losing his lucidity and manhood. Since he believes that his next journey will likely be his last, he tries to reconnect with long-lost lovers from his youth and has help to do so from an eccentric circle of caring friends and neighbors.

Alejandro Magnone wrote this humorous character study of a quixotic life that comes full circle in its last chapter. With these memories there are moments of nostalgic lucidity in which Tadeusz reminisces about his role in the Spanish Civil War and the loves he has lost.

Much of the movie is about Tadeusz’s quest to recover his sexual prowess and his obsession with acquiring a penis pump— he thinks he will feel better if he has an erection. He also has something to say about doctors who would rather see him medicated. We see flashbacks to Tadeusz’s adolescent guerrilla days in which Bidonde gives us a character that is both captivating and endearing.

Buenos Aires here seems to be inhabited exclusively by people who are most interested in the life of Tadeusz and more than willing to involve themselves to it.

“THE 90 MINUTE WAR”— Settling Differences Satrically

“The 90 Minute War” (“Milhemet 90 Hadakot”)

Settling Differences

Amos Lassen

Let’s face it—the Middle East is a power keg. For decades there have been failed peace talks and now with the threat of renewed hostilities looming, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree to end the crisis once and for all by a winner-take-all soccer match. One game will decide who will remain in the Holy Land and who must go. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the chairman of the Israeli Football Association (Moshe Ivgy) and his Palestinian counterpart (Norman Issa). Every detail of the game becomes a potentially deal-breaking negotiation beginning with the choice of venue to the selection of an impartial referee. As the day of the match draws closer, both men struggle with ambivalence about their place on the world stage while at the same time each pursues every advantage to ensure victory.

In case you have not yet realized it, this film is a politically incorrect mockumentary that reveals the sometimes petty and ridiculous nature of the differences that divide the Middle East.

For a satire to work, it must be based on reality and attack its targets from there. In this case, Eyal Halfon’s “The 90 Minute War” fails. It is based on an existing reality but the film’s basic premise is so far-fetched that the film cannot possibly succeed as a skillful satire. However, this does not mean it is not a good movie. The film completely ignores the question of how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority came up with such a solution. It seems that director Halfon apparently wanted to push the current desperate impasse to the point of absurdity and he does so without creditability.

The two men charged with organizing the game are unable to settle on a single detail without a negotiation that nearly blows the whole plan to pieces. Eventually they agree to hold the match in Portugal, since that country seems indifferent to the conflict. But then they start squabbling about who will be the referees; and so on.

Because this is an Israeli movie, it pays more attention to deliberations on the Israeli side than on the Palestinian one. I see this as thoughtlessness, irresponsibility and lack of commitment. Halfon has situated the story inside a “mockumentary” and the inevitable conclusion is that this is a film based on a mistake, causing every direction it takes to come out wrong as well. Nonetheless, the film is funny and the actors do fine jobs. It all just could have been so much better.