Posts Tagged ‘Jewish history’

The City and the City (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir.: Christos Passalis, Syllas Tzoumerkas; Cast: Alexandros Vardaxoglou, Vassilis Kanakis, Angeliki Papoulia, Niki Papandreou, Vasillis Karaboulas; Greece 2022, 96 min

Actor and director Christos Passalis (Dogtooth) and Syllas Tzoumerkas (A Blast) get behind the camera for this incendiary expose revealing in six scenarios how Greece was complicit in the genocide of thousands of Jews from the city of Thessaloniki during the German occupation of the Second World War.

Even during the war the repression of Greek Jews was not a new thing: it started in 1927 with the foundation of the “Nationalist Union of Greeks” (EEE) and their newspapers that set out to fight the Jewish community for the low paid jobs. “Separate Jews from the Natives” was one of their slogans. “The Jew must go” – this one became reality under German rule; teaching the Jews a lesson was the edict of the times: “Jews must learn to do things with their hands other than counting money”. And “The time has come, for the yellow star people to pack their bags and go”.

Jews were lined up and put into the Baron Hirsch ghetto, whence they were deported to the death camps. Early in 1943 Sarina writes an imploring letter to her son Maurice, who has taken refuge with relatives in Athens. Concerned for his wellbeing she says: “Dear Maurice, we are all confined in the ghetto. This all seems to be the work of an experienced sadist. What we fear most are the deportations. Some trains have already left. On the day of the deportation, people burn money, documents and furniture. They abandon their whole life.”

Epanomi, 29 km from Thessaloniki, serves as a transit camp for the city’s Jews. Some are executed, others sent to German camps and a few are released after ten days. In an interlude, we watch the burial of Sarah, Sarina’s home help, who was treated like a daughter. Nina (Papandreou) is told to stop her brother chanting. Normality is soon replaced by reality. The 500-year old Jewish cemetery of the city, housing half a million tombs, is demolished by the Germans with the help of the local Christians during the second year of occupation. The broken marbles of the graves are used for the re-construction of several buildings, among them the St. Demeter cathedral. The bones of the dead are ground into sand for construction sites. In 1950, after litigation, the administration of the State of Greece builds on the top of the ruins of the Jewish cemetery the new part of the Aristotle University. In 2014 the government installs a memorial stone at the University campus.

Only 4% percent of the Jewish population will survive. Nina’s (Papandreou) report from the Hirsch ghetto: “Arriving at the Hirsch Ghetto, we are pushed into a room with German soldiers. They lifted our skirts, stripped us naked and used their fingers to probe our privates for hidden jewellery. This included my ten-year old sister. When they found nothing, they started slapping my mother. Hasson, one of the Orologas brothers, cut her hair with a pen knife, injuring her scalp. The son of our local butcher got so angry he tried to kill Hasson, but he failed and was shot on the spot. My mother was put into a cell under ground, we never saw her again. Our Rabbi, 70-year old, had to clean the ghetto with a broom for a whole day.”

After liberation, Hasson was executed, but the bigger names survived. In 1957, Max Merten, the butcher of Thessaloniki, visited Greece and was arrested. After eight months he was let go, the West German government had offered a loan. SS Captain Dr. Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s ‘right hand’ died peacefully in 2010 as consultant to Syria’s Hafez el-Assad.

After a dreamlike meeting between Nina and Mauricein the old city, we learn that the city’s brothels had been destroyed after the war. Some of the business was done in the old railway station of Stravrapouli, where  the Pavlos Mecas camp had been.

The last part is a surrealistic collage that sees one of the surviving members of the family trying to get government compensation, meanwhile, on the beach, the last peaceful years of Sarina’s family play out with a competition to find the ‘most moronic’ winner of a fancy dress event.

Reality bites again: In 1943, after the deportations ended, thousands of Jewish businesses were again sequestered, snapped up by local entrepreneurs and state institutions. After the war, hundred sought the return of their property. Not even half of them were successful, the main reasons for denial were “Abandonment by the former owners” and “the lack of death certificates for the victims in the death camps”.

Cinematically brilliant and thematically relevant The City and The City once again proves that the Holocaust was not an isolated event. Before, during and after WWII Jews were the victims of state-organised pogroms, supported by a majority of the population who they thought were their neighbours and friends. AS



May God Be With You (2021) IDFA 2021

Dir: Cleo Cohen | Israel Doc

Cléo Cohen’s directorial debut is a highly personal exploration of her own identity as the granddaughter of Jewish Arabs who emigrated from Tunisia and Algeria to France during the 20th century.

In the intimate confines of the family homes Cohen plays devil’s advocate, questioning the time honoured subject of Jewish identity and the relationship between Arabs and Jews in the Maghreb. What emerges is a generational conflict, as well as a very subjective view of the past from the older generation’s perspective.

Cohen starts with a provocative bon mot in the opening titles which manages to ruffle a few feathers back home: What is the shortest joke in history?: “A Jew met another Arab.” When defending the Arabs’ view of history she is told: “Defend the Arabs and you’ll see what happens to you”. When she answers back: “the worst massacre of Jews took place in Western, Christian Europe” a swift reply comes: “If the Arabs were organised, they would have done the same to us. Cleo does not feel Jewish at all when her grandma Denise tells her “the Arabs got what they deserved.”

In an attempt to gain context she then speaks to Richard Cohen (to whose memory the film is dedicated) former lawyer for the FLN in Algeria. He nods, too weak to answer in full. And Daniel Shebabo is equally frank: “The French got the Jews on their side during the wars of Independence in the Maghreb – separating them from the Arabs via the Cremieux Decree, which made Jews French overnight in 1960. I still remember the pride my mother felt. It caused some confusion with other Pied-Noirs, but my mother said we are Pied-Noirs. My family never mingled with Arabs.”

Denise Houri, is firmly in the Jews’ camp and considers herself ‘in exile’ from her native Tunisia. “It was hard finding ourselves in another country. But we can’t go back, the old country won’t be the same any more. Memories stay still in time. You are often disappointed if you go back. Alain went, he sent photos”. Nevertheless, Cleó is planning to visit Oran in Algeria. Denise is hard-line when it comes to Cleó’s duty regarding her own (as yet unborn) children: “You will be the guide for the people of Israel, on their behalf. You must pass that on to your children. Transient Jewish identity is a value. They should never marry an Arab. I practice my religion at home. Cultural blending is not a good idea.”

Daniel Shebabo talks about the thorny issue of identity: “Identity is never a foregone conclusion. It can always be undermined by yourself or others. I am re-assured by being Jewish, but I do not distance myself from others. The more you are re-assured, the better you can accept others with different identities. In Tunisia I mainly lived with Muslims.”

The director wanders around Denise’ flat, resting in the huge bath tub, and reading Albert Memmi’s classic of 1957 ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized” from his perspective as a French-Tunisian writer of Jewish origins. She reflects that “Arabs are not just Tunisians, there are Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Jewish Arabs too. We are not Muslims, but we are Jews with an Arab culture and identity. Our mother tongue is Arabic, but we are Jews. I am an Arab by culture, but not a Jewish Arab.”

A highly personal feature which nevertheless touches on ideological conflicts, not only between Jews and Arabs, but also within the Jewish communities themselves. An important film that attempts to shed light on the complex the issues surrounding cultural and religious identity, antisemitism, racism and colonialism. AS


The Birdcatcher (2018) ***

Dir.: Ross Clarke; Cast: Sofie Boussnina, Arthur Hakalahti, Jacob Cedergen, Laura Birn; Norway/UK 2019, 100′.

Ross Clarke has adapted Trond Morten Venaasen’s script in this gripping thriller that uncovers a relatively unknown slice of Norwegian Second World War history. It follows an enterprising Jewish teenager who takes refuge in a farm belonging to a Nazi sympathiser in a bid to escape persecution and deportation. From collaboration to resistance, the local population’s reaction to their Nazi conquerors was not always clear-cut. And while some of the action pieces here feel unconvincing, strong performances make this an absorbing drama.

In 1942 Trondheim, Esther (Boussnina) dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress despite her humble beginnings. Her father has planned their escape to the USA, but Nazi raids on the Jewish population condemn Esther to a lonely struggle in the remote countryside, after escaping a deportation convoy.

She ends up at a farm house, dressed as a boy and calling herself Ula. Although the owner Johann (Cedergen) supports the Nazi occupation, he does little to help his son Aksel (Hakalahti), despite his disabilities. The only person who rumbles Esther is Johann’s wife Anna, who is having a affair with a Nazi officer, and keeps quiet about the girl in defiance of her husband. During a bloody shoot-out between Johann and his wife’s lover, Esther and Aksel try to escape on a sleigh over the frozen sea to Sweden. An epilogue set in Trondheim after the war delivers the final surprise.

Clarke uncovers some original takes on Nazi politics during the occupation. Johann goes with Esther to the local cinema where German propaganda films are casually screened alongside dance-features and bogus propaganda newsreels showing unanimous Norwegian support for their German occupiers. Boussnina is outstanding as Esther, and the rest of the ensemble offers convincing support. DoP John Christian Rosenlund creates an impressive sense of place, with glorious widescreen images and realistic shots of Nazi Party meetings. AS

ON RELEASE in Cinemas, Digital HD & DVD from 4th October 2019




Schindler’s List (1993) *****

Dir: Steven Spielberg | Writer: Steven Zaillian | Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidz, Caroline Goodall | US Biopic Drama, 195′

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List is possibly Spielberg’s most noble arthouse classic, and certainly as memorable as Jaws. In German-occupied Poland, 1939, an opportunistic German businessman turns humanitarian hero by saving his Jewish workforce of some 1100 after witnessing their persecution by the Nazi Germans. Certainly this was Liam Neeson’s finest hour in the lead role of Oskar Schindler. Nothing he has done since has quite reached the heady heights of his break-taking performance as the Czech factory owner, who ends up penniless. The grainy camerawork gives an immediacy to the tragedy of brutal, casual slaughter of innocents. Kingsley, too, is tremendous as Stern, the crafty accountant; and would go on to better things, as would Fiennes as Goeth, the steely leader of Plaszow camp. Spielberg’s direction is masterful in bringing clarity to the incomprehensible darkness of the Holocaust unfolding bleakly in this black and white chronicle of wartime wickedness. Crucially, Schindler’s List brought the Holocaust to younger, mainstream audiences, many of whom would witness for the first time the grim fate of victimised Jews, and would be shocked to the core, Janusz Kaminski’s images seared to the memory. MT


Heimat – A German Chronicle (1984) | Bluray release

Dir.: Edgar Reitz; Cast: Marita Breuer, Dieter Schaad, Michael Lesch, Rudiger Weingang, Eva Maria Bayerswaltes, Karin Rasenack, Michael Kausch, Peter Harting, Jorg Richter, Jorg Hube, Gudrun Landgrebe, Gertrud Bredel; West Germany 1984, 924 min.

Edgar Reitz was originally intending to publish Heimat as a semi-autobiographical novel but a meeting with producer Joachim von Mengershausen inspired him to film this as a chronicle of Germany’s wartime social history set in the imaginary village of Schabbach, from 1919 to 1982. He was especially keen to avoid the phoney undertones of the US soap opera ‘Holocaust’ (which ironically went down very well with German TV audiences). HEIMAT (1984) is an epic achievement that captures the turbulent years of postwar economic hardship, the rise and fall of Nazism, The Second World War and the decades that followed through the prism of traditional family life rather than through the eyes of Germany’s leaders, politicians, or creatives. Marita Breuer gives a wonderful performance as the woman at the centre of it all, holding the family together as a daughter, wife and matriarch from childhood to old age.

The story begins after Germany’s routing in the Second World War that sees Paul Simon (Lesch) returning to his family in Schabbach, where he escapes the confines of the small community by building a radio and escaping into world events. He falls in love with Apollonia, but later marries Maria (Breuer). His brother Eduard (Weigang), panning for gold in a nearby river, catches pneumonia and never really recovers and is sent to Berlin for treatment. Paul suddenly ups and leaves and Maria is left with the children.

Eduard falls in love with social climber Lucie (Rasenack), who runs a brothel and talks him into joining the SA. Back in the village, another member of the Simon clan is imprisoned in a KZ, for his Communist Party leanings. Maria has now fallen in love with the engineer Otto Wohlleben, but a letter from Paul, who is living in the USA, destroys any future for them. When Paul finally remerges, arriving in Hamburg, he cannot enter the country due to to his name being misconstrued as being ‘Jewish’ – and he has no proof of his Aryan ancestry. Meanwhile Otto is defusing bombs at the front when he learns that Maria has borne him a son called Hermann who he will meet for the first time at the end of the war, when American troops arrive in the village, after the Allies’ victory in 1945, bringing with them a sense of normality – and food. Paul finally returns from the USA, his big limousine is the talk of the village. But his return is not celebrated by everyone and he soon goes back, missing the funeral of his grandmother Katherinna (Bredel). Maria lives her life through her son Hermann who is interested in music and poetry. He eventually falls for Klärchen, who is eleven years older than him. Paul has since sold his company to the Americans for a huge profit, and channels his success into helping Herman with his musical career.

The shoot ran from 1981, and took 18 months, before 13 months of editing resulted in a 15-hour potted version, down from 18 hours of rough-cut. Over ten million West Germans watched the eleven episodes. Thanks to DoP Gernot Roll, a later cinema version was internationally successful, the seemingly arbitrary changes from colour to black-and-white and back giving the chronicle of the years between 1919 and 1982 an added feature. The main premise of HEIMAT was to show how ordinary people – in this case the Germans – can easily embrace a murderous regime such as Nazism, and even in a small village like Schabbach, could tolerate the existence of the concentration camps, almost turning a blind eye. These same people went on to embrace consumerism, this time following in the footsteps of the Americans. Reitz would follow Heimat with The Second Heimat (1992), Heimat – Fragments – The Story of the Women in Heimat (2006) and Home from Home (2013) – all together another 30 hours viewing, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, which became Reitz’ second home.

HEIMAT | 30 APRIL 2018 | Newly restored version for the first time on Blu-ray as Heimat Limited Edition Box Set courtesy of Second Sight. Restored from the original negative by The Edgar Reitz Film Foundation, the set comes complete with a limited-edition luxury 50-page soft cover book and features a vast array of brand new bonus features including Edgar Reitz’s two-hour documentary ‘prologue’ to Heimat and interviews including Edgar Reitz and Marita Breuer  Weigang.



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