Jewish Film Festival in Warsaw

Alex Deleon-Pevny


The First International Festival of Jewish films ever to be held in Warsaw—officially ‘Films On Jewish Motifs – 04’—took place here from 18-27 April 2004.  Produced essentially on a shoestring budget, by Mirek Chojecki, himself a veteran documentary film maker, it was also given a good dose of moral support by various luminaries of the Polish film world, including Andrzej Wajda, awarded a Hollywood Oscar for his life’s work two years ago. Sixty films were screened in the main competition section with a special section of Yiddish films and a mini-retrospective of features by Joseph Losey, a major American director with Warsaw Jewish roots.

All competition films were vintage 2002 or later, mostly documentaries with a number of full length features thrown in for good measure.  The overwhelming majority of films,  not surprisingly, dealt with the Holocaust, especially  (though not exclusively) with Polish aspects of the Holocaust, and stories of Polish survivors.  What was surprising, however, was the number of films that went beyond the usual Holocaust re-hashings, entering the largely uncharted and still murky waters of potential reconciliation  between  Poland, land of—‘nothing but Jew haters’—and resentful Polish-hating descendants of ‘Jewish martyrs’  now living all over the world.

A relatively mainstream feature film, shown out of competition, was Marceline Loridan’s The Birch Meadow ( = Birkenau), a slightly fictionalized account of the director’s own survival as a teenager in this sister camp of Auschwitz.  Marceline, haunted all her life by the death camp experience, decided to return to the location fifty years later in order to exorcise the devils within her.  The film is basically the story of her revisitation to this scene of unspeakable horror, now covered largely with green meadows.  Her alter ego in the film is played by the famous French (Jewish!) actress Anouk Aimee. This  film was received with mixed  critical reaction at the Berlin Film Festival premiere last year, where I myself, thought it was ‘too theatrical’ and that Anouk Aimee was much too much of a high-profile international star—with such famous films as Man and a Woman (1967) and Fellini’s 8 1/2, (1963),  behind her, to undertake such a low-key non-star type of  portrayal.

However, re-seeing the film here, a bare 14 months later in a different context, on the same Polish soil where death camps such as Birkenau flourished and, with a predominantly Polish audience, it had an entirely different effect on me.  I now saw Anouk as having quite successfully entered Marceline’s skin and sensitively conveying what Marceline must have felt—what we all feel when trying to imagine the deathless horror of the German death camps.  In short, a very powerful and poetic film, even if slightly romanticized around the edges.  It served its purpose—the devils are exorcised—to the extent that this can ever be completely possible.  And Anouk, such a beautiful woman at such a considerable age…

Among the documentaries and shorter films there were so many outstanding

entries—one surprise and revelation after another—as to make the head swim.  A number  of these films, were of such quality and content as to merit entire articles on their own;  Benjamin Geissler’s Finding Pictures (Germany), Hiding and Seeking by Menachem Daum, (USA), The Mascot by Lina Caneva, (Australia), Between Two Women by  Itzhak Rubin, (Israel),  to mention only a few. Many other films, while of lesser depth, were nevertheless eye openers and thought provokers of one kind or another.  There was even one  (but, only one) out-and-out comedy—the story of a famous high-society female Jewish jewel thief in the early XXth century—Sonja, the Golden Hand, by Julia Dansker of Moscow.  This was, incidentally, made as a parody of a silent film , in color with narration and music over, which is part of its charm. Impossible to do justice to all of the exraordinary films seen as this unexpected treasure chest was inched open day by day—in the space allotted here I can merely offer a samplingof those which had the most immediate impact.

Benjamin Geissler’s ‘Finding Pictures’, a multi-layered inquest into the lost murals of Bruno Schulz, legendary Polish-Jewish writer and artist who was murdered by the Germans in his home town of Drohobycz in 1942, is the kind of film which requires multiple viewings to sort out the incredible mass of puzzling information presented in its all too short 106 minutes.  Geissler traveled far and wide, Paris, Israel, Vienna, Germany, Drohowycz and Lwow, now in the Ukraine—to interview everyone he could find who had a connection with this strange masochistic Polish genius of word and image who has been styled, among other things, a ‘Polish Kafka’.   The lost pictures in question were painted by Schulz during the last year of his life on the walls of the villa of Felix Landau, the murderous Gestapo chief of Drohobycz who had a taste for art and literally enslaved Schulz, forcing him to decorate his young son’s bedroom walls in exchange for a slightly longer lease on life. When the house changed hands several times after the war and the walls were repainted,  the Schulz murals disappeared but were known to exist.  The film unfolds like a Galician Citizen Kane inquiry, and ends upon a shocking note when representatives of Yad Vashem arrive in town to literally steal these treasures straight from the walls—claiming that their rightful place is in Israel because ‘Schulz was a Holocaust victim killed for being a Jew’.

Thus this mural, rediscovered at great pains by concerned non-Jewish Germans, was treated by the Israeli Holocaust Mafia as an escaped Nazi war criminal rather than the Polish-Ukrainian art treasure which it actually is. Since it is something of a taboo in certain journalistic circles ever to say anything critical about the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Israel, the film raised  a ‘holy hell’ of controversy when it was first shown two years ago in New York.  Geissler’s film is a thought provoker to say the very least, not to mention an invaluable celulloid document on Bruno Schulz himself.

In Hiding And Seeking by Menachem Daum, a yarmulke bedecked orthodox Jew

from New York with two fanatically religious sons who automatically regard all Poles as ‘born Jew-killers’, the filmmaker, having discovered that his parents were in fact saved by a family of simple Polish peasants who hid them on their farm for two years during the German occupation—knowingly putting their own lives at risk—decides to ‘expand his sons’ consciousness’  by taking them to Poland to confront the wartime family benefactors.  In between, it must be said that Menachem himself came under the saintly influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach the ‘Singing Hippy Hasid’ of the sixties who, as we learn from the film—taught him how to love, and the importance of expunging hatred from his Jewish soul. An extremely painful part of this emotional Odyssey is when the old Polish lady, now doubled over with age but still sharply alert, asks why Menachem’s father who had promised her ‘everything in Heaven’ when he got to America—never in all those years sent a single postcard—a single word—simply chose to forget these poor people who had put their lives on the line for him and his family.  Back in America the aged Jewish father says in a hoarse Yiddish whisper, ‘I couldn’t help it—tthe debt we owed them was much too great to ever pay it back, so I just put it out of my mind…‘ Unspeakable  Jewish ingratitude, or the paralyzing shock of survival when everyone you knew was being gassed and cremated??—difficult questions.   One son ends up ‘converted’ and makes a moving speech of recognition at the reconciliation party which concludes the story.  The other son cannot completely let go of his fanatical hatred… Menachem sums it all up with an anecdote about Carlebach who said ’God gave me two eyes and two ears, but only one heart.  If he had given me two hearts, I would love with one and hate with the other, but he only gave me one heart,  so I cannot poison it with hatred and can only love with it’.   Menachem Daum, a devoutly religious grandfather with a trim white beard, is a man now firmly dedicated to the making of films directed at bridging the painful chasm between Poles and Jews—and to the breaking down of the stereotypes which separate them.

Possibly the single most fascinating film of all—if one must pick a single one—was The Mascot by Lina Caneva of far-off Australia.  If  Agnieszka Holland’s Europa-Europa was the amazing story of a Jewish boy who suvived the war by becoming a member of the Hitler Jugend, all the while hiding his true identity,  this one takes that one step farther—a Russian Jewish boy who was so traumatized when he watched his whole family being massacred by Germans,  that he actually blanked it all out, even forgetting where he came from and what his name was—and thus had no identity upon being adopted as an Aryan-looking Mascot by a passing band of Latvian Nazis.  After the

war he lived in Riga as a Latvian with a Latvian identity,  married a Latvian woman and eventually moved to Melbourne, Australia,  but couldn’t get two strange nonsense words out of his mind—a kind of Kanesian ‘rose-bud‘.   Due in large part to the persistent curiosity of his Australian-born son, these half-remembered secret syllables eventually led to the recovery of his original identity and finally to  the revelation of his his real family name—Halperin—sixty years later!.    The discovery that this ‘fellow Latvian’ who had been living as an unquestioned ‘one of us’ but was actually a ‘Jew’ once upon a time—60 years earlier—comes as a real shock to his Latvian ‘friends and neighbors’ in Melbourne, many of whom now shun him. What makes the film so fascinating is the equanimity with which the man himself simply accepts the tricks that fate has played on him all his life with a kind of open-hearted candor and enigmatic half smile, a Jewish Candide with an Aryan face, and a one-of-a-kind documentary proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

The question of normal, non-religious Polish Jews firmly anchored in Polish culture but unable to live in Poland any more, was dealt with in brutally honest fashion by a film entitled Takeoffs Are Precious, (Odłoty sa cenne),  a 26 minute Polish documentary by Grzegorz Federowski.   Here we witness a summer reunion in Poland of former residents of the Niebuszewo district of the northern city of Szczecin, a once thriving Jewish community of  over 30,000.  They are all now white-haired senior citizens of different countries.  One by one they testify, in perfect Polish, to their love of Polish culture, language, literature, theater, film—and it is clear that they will always be mentally and culturally Polish no matter where they live.  Most of them attempted to return to their ‘homeland’ after the war but found that their love of Poland was not reciprocated—was in fact resented, by the Christian Poles around them. And so it was too uncomfortable for them to remain, although they are fully aware that they will never be truly at home in any other country.  This is another kind of tragedy that is not often taken up in Holocaust related films which tend to focus on religious communities. Federowski’s film is another minor revelation.

Between Two Women’  by Itzhak Rubin, of Israel, is a full length documentary centering on a most amazing woman, the celebrated Israeli actress Orna Pornat, a kind of Israeli Sarah Bernhardt, who, needless to say, speaks perfect theatrical and colloquial Hebrew. One small twist. She was born Nina Klein in Nazi Germany of an ‘Aryan family’ and grew up believing the Nazi ideology.  She became gradually disillusioned but was pressed into Nazi military service towards the end of the war and was interned by the British at war’s end.  Here she meets a British Intelligence Officer of German-Jewish origin—a  coup de foudre—they get married then migrate to Israel where her husband becomes an officer in the Israeli Secret Service, the Mossad, while she adopts an Israeli name and becomes Israel’s leading stage actress!   We meet this remarkable woman at various stages of her career, in various stage roles as she discourses with disarming frankness on the amazing bald facts of her life, mostly in Hebrew, with here and there a phrase of her native German.  She contracts cancer, accepts that stoically, recovers, and is still going strong as the film ends. Who is this woman! How come I never heard of her before?  Still another revelation in a week of nothing but revelations.

The Road To Jeninby Pierre Rehov, a 52 minute war film about the ‘battle

of Jenin’ or ‘the massacre at Jenin’ depending which side of the propaganda fence you sit on—is actually a film about how the unquestionably pro-Arab European press and the blatantly mendacious Arab press describe events to create the picture they wish to convey to the world at large. In the battle according to Rehov, some 27 Israelis and maybe

twice that number of Arabs were killed.  The British press swelled the number of Arab casualties up to as high as 700 to make it appear to have been a massacre of ‘innocent Palestinian civilians’, rather than a legitimate military action.  An Arab TV reporter is shown delivering incredible propagandistic bullshit with a sickening half smile on his face and half lowered eyelids, which reveals to even the most amateur reader of facial expressions that this greaseball is lying through his teeth—always with that sickening half smile in place, and eyes at half mast. To be sure, this films goes a little overboard

to show how kind Israeli soldiers are to poor Arab civilians, and how ‘sweet hearted’ our boys are compared to those fanatics Arabs—which may not necessarily be entirely the case. However, the scenes of indoctrination of Palestinian children—being taught how to strap bombs to their bodies and brain-washed to be ready to die gladly for Allah at all times—is truly horrifying. The Nazi indoctrination of children is nothing compared to this brand of brainwashing for ‘martyrdom’. The look on the faces of these willing juvenile kamikazes arouses horror.

The film which was greeted with perhaps the warmest audience reception as evidenced by the overwhelming wave of praise and kvelling as opposed to questions per se in the post film discussion period, was Mendy,  the debut film of Israeli-American director, Adam Vardy. This is a very low-budget independent feature shot on beta video stock, but extremely well made such that a transfer to thirty-five mm. for theatrical release should pose no problem.   The subject of the film is ‘leaving the fold’ of the protective but hermetically sealed Hassidic  community—in fact, getting as far away from it as possible…for example, runnning off to Brazil with a lovely shiksa, except that she’s not merely a shiksa, she’s a ‘shvartze‘—vey iz mir! The film plays out  mostly in New York where a young refugee from hasidic Brooklyn  exchanges religious ecstasy for chemical and sexual ecstasy in Manhattan, with generous gobs of Yiddish thrown in, a language not heard very often these days in ‘normal’ feature films.  Mr. Vardy, who is clearly a talent to be reckoned with, says that he has been getting nothing but

rejection slips from all the goyish ‘Indie’ festivals, (Sundance, etc.)—but also, strangely,  from many of the Jewish film festivals which now dot the map like measles and apparently find his completely ‘normal’ subject matter too hot to handle, ‘normal’ in the sense that it is only natural to want to escape from communities based on intensive brainwashing once you get a taste of the outside world where independent thought is permissible.   However, the hasidic community, with all its extreme mishugas, is still regarded as slightly sacrosanct, even by non-hasidic Jews, who see it as a kind of last refuge of  ‘real Judaism’ and a bulwark against assimilation.

In any case this is an honest film with highly appealing young performers and situations which are not only real, but not half as crazy, according to the director, as the kind of total freakouts which occur all the time when young hasids make the break with the world of peyes (side curls), sinister wide brim hats, long black coats and dangling tzitzit.  Even Mendy, the liberated hasid of this story in the company of the ebony beauty who is making it so much easier for him to flee the ghetto, pulls out his tefilin on a back street in Recife and starts to pray, because the habit is really hard to kick.   Brainwashing does not come undone overnight. A film about redemption through the love of a woman—a Wagnerian theme in a black kosher mould—the kind of film you can’t  help rooting for, because it’s such a nice Jewish film!

And finally (only because of lack of room)—March Of The Living  by Grzegorz Linkowski, Poland.   Martin Boorman, Jr., white-haired son of one of Hitler’s inner circle and top henchmen, meets with Jewish Catholic priest Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel on neutral ground—Auschwitz!   Martin seems to think that it wasn’t his father who was a bad guy, that it was just the Nazi ideology that was bad, but he’s  now a devout Christian so ‘it isn’t for us to judge‘.In any case, an amazing juxtaposition of people with twisted identities, which was, come to think of it, a leitmotif running through the entire festival. This leaves me thinking—is there any way to be Jewish and still remain untwisted?—or is being Jewish, as a very bright hasidic friend of mine once put it, ‘a birth defect’?


PS: There were at least ten other films which should be recommended to festival organizers. In all honesty, given the overkill in the area of Holocaust and Jewish theme films over the past two decades, I came to Warsaw more out of a sense of  duty than with any expectations of  great shakes coming up. The thought uppermost in my mind was:  ‘So what else can one say on these themes that hasn’t already been said ad nauseum, countless times before?  Check it out, and if you get bored, you can always split after a day or two. Unexpectedly, I was hooked from day number one by the freshness, variety, and intelligence of  views presented  and, well, just a batch of damn good films!  So, here I am, still hooked on the last day, and strongly hoping there will be a next year for this festival.   I come away with the feeling that my overall film experience, especially in the documentary vein, has been greatly enriched, and that many outstanding and long-standing questions I have had regarding Poles and Jews are now in much sharper focus.  Not the answers—but the questions…  Above all, what this festival has been for me was a gravitational focussing lens on a whole spectrum of personal questions and Poland-related interests. Interestingly, the award trophies distributed in various categories were in the form of a giant Phoenix, symbolizing the resurrection of Jewish culture in Warsaw, rising from the ashes of the Ghetto so graphically depicted in Polański’s The Pianist.