Category Archives: Boston Jewish Film Festival

“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.

“PINSKY”— A Complicated Relationship

“Pinsky”

A Complicated Relationship

Amos Lassen

“Pinsky” focuses on a 26-year-old queer woman who is an aspiring stand up comic with a complicated relationship with her Jewish grandmother. Sophia Pinsky seems to be an adult with an adult life. She has a job, an apartment and a partner. But then, her grandfather died suddenly and her girlfriend left her. Marina, Sophia, Russian grandmother uses Sophia’s guilt and insecurities as a way to get her to move back home and live with the family. She begins trying to get her to marry a nice Jewish guy named Trevor but Sophia wants nothing to do with men and after a terrible date with him, Sophia goes to a comedy club where, with all of her personal problems, people find her to be quite funny and laugh at her jokes. She makes new friends with some of the club patrons and they all have the feeling of being outsiders everywhere but at the club.

Sophia’s relationship with her family comes to an explosion one Shabbat dinner and she now relies on her new family to be there for her as she learns to accept herself. At that same dinner, Sophia and Trevor try to humiliate Marina by pretending to have fallen for each other, not knowing that Marina has her own announcement— she is already dating her childhood rabbi and this puts Sophia and Maria at odds in attempting to define loyalty and love.

Rebecca Karpovsky and Amanda Lindquist are the brains behind this film and it is through them that we see and understand that family relationships are usually quite complicated. The film is not a criticism of the se relationships but rather a look at how complicated they can be.

“BIG SONIA”— A Diva

“Big Sonia”

A Diva

Amos Lassen

Sonia Warshawski who is over ninety-years-old is a Holocaust survivor and a diva that has just been served an eviction notice for her popular tailor shop in suburban Kansas City. Sonia’s trauma comes to the surface as she struggles with the concept of retirement. Sonia loves red lipsticks and clothing with animal prints and she is a vibrant force and a diligent worker who runs a six-day-a-week tailor shop by herself. For Sonia, the importance of keeping busy is no simple response to widowhood or means of fending off the loneliness of old age. A particular darkness has haunted her most of her life from her memories of the years she spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. As the only Holocaust survivor in the Kansas City area to speak publicly about her experiences, she has turned those memories into a form of action that is both enlightening and therapeutic.

Her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, directed the documentary with Todd Soliday and their approach is clear-eyed and measured as they observe Sonia in at work and during her visits with students and prisoners as a motivational speaker. We get glimpses of the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm as she goes through her days.

Sonia acknowledges her emotional damage as well as her refusal to be bowed by it. At 13, in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec, she watched from an attic window as neighbors were rounded up for the camps. Soon her family would be found in their hiding places. She never again saw her father or brother. At 17, she witnessed her mother entering the gas chamber. Years later, she heard the history-erasing claims of Holocaust deniers and this galvanized her to counter their propaganda with her truth.

We see the effect of that truth on the faces of those listening to her quiet, impassioned words. In a program addressing bullying and aimed at reducing recidivism, incarcerated men appear shaken to the core when they hear what happened to her family.

But with her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor, Sonia created a family. Warshawski’s access to Sonia’s children takes the film into the wartime experience as an emotional inheritance for the second generation. Sonia’s son, Morrie, recalls a sadness in the household and his awareness that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as other kids.

The filmmakers, like Sonia herself, acknowledge the ongoing struggle that’s essential to surviving such trauma. There’s hard-fought clarity when Sonia says that she leaves the matter of forgiveness to a higher power. Since we are losing the last of the Holocaust survivors, we see the urgency when Sonia insists on remembering.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“THE MIDNIGHT ORCHESTRA”— Going Home

“The Midnight Orchestra” (“L’orchestre de minuit”)

Going Home

Amos Lassen

After leaving Morocco during racial tensions brought on by Israel’s Yom Kippur war, Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra), the son of a once famous Jewish musician travels to his home country to bury his father. As he meets the members of the band, his life unexpectedly transforms.

Abitbol returns to his childhood home in Casablanca to be reunited with his elderly father: legendary bandleader and local hero Marcel Botbol, from whom he has been estranged. Botbol is returning there himself for the first time since leaving his native city and adoring fans for Israel in 1973. No sooner do they meet again when tragedy strikes and the son must engage with officials of the local Jewish community to bury his father. But first Michael must fulfill his father’s last wish— he must reunite the band and this becomes an overwhelming desire to do so for one last gig.

We see the power that Casablanca exerts on the imagination. Both Jews and Muslims have been shaped by the city’s magic. Michael left Israel for America and became a successful Wall Street speculator who hopes to repair the fractured relationship he has with his father, Marcel, a famous Moroccan Jewish musician, who has also returned to the city after many years abroad.

Their return home, their universal story of return and remembrance, is at the heart of the film. For 2,000 years Jews have gone to Morocco, first as refugees from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and later as victims of Christian and Muslim persecution. Life there was not always easy, and the relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors have had ups and downs. But by the 20th century Moroccan Jews had become an integral part of the culture of the country.

The funeral of Marcel helps bring together the members of his old band in “The Midnight Orchestra.” The quest to find the band members is both comical and suspenseful and for Michael a bittersweet nostalgia trip too. His childhood around the band and its members is beautifully evoked by sepia tinted footage of the musicians in their prime. Michael sees the little ghost of his younger self too, haunting the places where he played as a boy.

For the audience the film is a look into the past and present of a Jewish community little known outside Morocco and into the now cordial relationship it has with the country’s Muslim majority. This is a poignant about regret and relationships, memory and getting old.

“Music is what brings them together,” director Jerome Cohen-Olivar has said, “but that’s really just a metaphor for a people who have been deprived of so much.”

“32 PILLS: MY SISTER’S SUICIDE”— A Personal Documentary

 

“32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide”

A Personal Documentary

Amos Lassen

The tragic death of her sister was Hope Litoff’s catalyst for the personal documentary “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide.” Litoff was hoping to find some inner peace while making the film but found herself confronting issues of guilt, denial and addiction.

Near the end of 2008 photographer Ruth Litoff was found in her Manhattan loft, having finally “succeeded” after 20 or more suicide attempts over many years. The police who went to the scene said that the entire apartment was meticulously prepared for the event, with notes, presents, etc. and with instructions for disbursement to various friends and family. A few days earlier, Ruth decorated her Manhattan loft like a beautiful stage set with fifteen suicide notes surrounding her and specially selected gifts for her closest friends. Multiple bowls of cat food were left in case it took awhile to find her.

The film begins on the day that Hope found Ruth dead and it then traces over her fascinating life and work with the highs and the lows and the secrets and the lies. It follows Hope’s journey examining her sister’s rich body of artwork, interviewing friends and family, and reading her journals for the very first time. Ruth excelled at everything she so the reason for her taking her own life was a mystery.  Making the film forced Hope to face difficult truths and caused her to drink again after 16 years of sobriety.

Ruth was a complex person who was sometimes dark yet brilliant and Hope wanted this to come through in the movie. Her story is told through interviews with friends and individuals who came to know her in life and through her death.  Ruth was incredibly dynamic and her creative mind was never still.  She was sexual, never without a boyfriend, and took nude photos of every one she ever had. She struggled and was desperate to understand who she was, and took hundreds of self-portraits that alternated between pride and self-loathing. While photography was her main medium but she also created collages, drawings, wry cartoons and videos and even her many suicide attempts were documented. These are revealing and capture her inner world.

This film is Hope’s effort to know and accept Ruth in death in a way that she was never able to in life and to learn to live with the pain of losing her.

Ruth was a, high-achieving role model who began turning into an over-dependent problem at a young age. Her first suicide attempt came at 13 and she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar, though in retrospect Hope thinks that borderline personality disorder might have been her condition. She had severe mood swings, depression bouts and ideas of suicide that caused broken relationships and other external upheavals.

Both girls reacted to their affluent parents’ crumbling marriage: Hope escaped into recreational drugs and blackout drinking from early adolescence. Even before Hope started drinking again, her husband, Todd, worried that she won’t be able to handle the emotions.

We see that Hope may have laid Ruth to rest at last to a degree, but her own issues will be with her for a long time. The film is emotionally powerful and is difficult watch. It speaks deeply to those who have struggled with depression or addiction or loved anyone who has.

“BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY”— A Beauty with Skills

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”

A Beauty With Skills

Amos Lassen

Hedy Lamarr was just 16 when she became a natural born star. She was the first woman who simulated an orgasm in cinema. “Ecstasy” introduced her to the world. But Lamarr wanted to be seen as a clever woman, so she devised a secret communication system to help the Allies beat the Nazis. In “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” we see that a person is not to be defined by labels.

After the success of her debut film, Lamarr realized it would be hard to continue living in Austria. In 1937, she transferred to London and found an American film agent who took her to Hollywood. There the US press allowed her to be beautiful. But in the US, she lived a tough life because was a slave to her looks. She had six husbands and an adopted son who she abandoned years later. Her dalliances included Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy. Hughes shared with her a love for science but according to her he was the worst lover she has ever had. Hughes represented all she could get in life. She had the benefit of beauty, she attracted wealthy and remarkable men but she would have to conceal that she was intelligent too.

“Bombshellis based on the tapes of an interview Lamarr gave to Forbes 25 years ago revealing how she became a Hollywood tragedy. By the age of 75, she had to cope with the consequences of several blotched plastic surgeries. She was retired and reclusive. She struggled hard to escape the Hollywood label by inventing a system of communication which became a constituent part of wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS technologies. She thought that the only possible way the Allies could send messages without been intercepted by the Germans was if they changed radio frequencies multiple times. Hedy worked with a pianist that helped her to build a box to communicate. She gave her patent to the United States Navy and received no credit for her invention. She lived in poverty in her final years.

Lamarr is the perfect example of how destructive ageism and strict beauty requirements can be. Her pictures as an old woman are quite terrifying.

Composer George Antheil worked together with Lamarr on some of the most disruptive technology of the last two centuries. As soon as Lamarr reached Hollywood, she ardently embraced anti-Nazi causes. However, when America, her beloved adopted nation, entered the war, Lamarr believed she had better ways to support the war effort than selling war bonds.

She had always had an inventor’s mind and thanks to her first of six husbands, she knew a little something about torpedoes. Decades ahead of her time, Lamarr developed a “frequency-hopping” method of guiding torpedoes through submerged waters and signal-jamming interference. Antheil helped her refine this into a deployable technology but the U.S. Navy just didn’t get it. As a result, they put the technology that would eventually become they cornerstone of wi-fi and Blue Tooth communications systems in storage.

 

Director and writer Alexandra Dean’s approach is straightforward all the way and the film, like Lamarr, is classy.

“KEEP THE CHANGE”— A Love Story

“Keep The Change”

A Love Story

Amos Lassen

Keep the Change”, directed and written by Rachel Israel is about the challenges a couple has with building face-to-face personal relationships in and out of their private worlds.

After being court-mandated punishment for making one of his trademark inappropriate jokes to a police officer, 30-year-old David (Brandon Polansky)is ordered to attend Connections, a New York City organization for autistic men and women. Wearing a blazer and dark sunglasses, David feels out of place in this community of strangers who he sees as “weirdos.” Yet we also see that David is tricking himself into believing he’s somehow superior. Things take an unexpected turn for David when he’s forced to work on a Brooklyn Bridge project with fellow Connections member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who claims that she has autism and a “learning disability,” and who’s prone to expressing herself via streams of colloquialisms. David’s aggravation turns to love, however, after he and Sarah spend time together, and she confesses that she finds him “really smoking hot and so sexy.” Love soon blossoms via clumsy bear-hug kisses and bedroom sex. However, their budding relationship isn’t without its ups and downs.

The film follows David and Sarah’s affair with a sweetness while at the same time using comedy that comes out of their conditions and which often leads them to say inapt or peculiar things at random moments. The film doesn’t mock their idiosyncrasies; it celebrates them in all their forms. That extends to the raft of acquaintances David meets while at Connections, who in most cases are (like David and Sarah) are played by autistic amateur actors who are all the more charming for being so unaffected.

Uninhibited and yet often innocent and unaware, Elisofon is an endearingly, while Polansky captures a moving sense of David’s desire to be “normal” (something at least partially acquired from his parents) and his simultaneous yearning to be understood and accepted.

The film is a subtle political statement about autism but it is not a polemic statement. We see the bond that David and Sarah share as totally normal and perfectly weird.