By Juan Barquin
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Documentaries have been out of fashion in the film world, though exactly what a documentary is remains debatable, at least in Hollywood circles. (Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line did not qualify for Oscar consideration, according to the rules.) Whatever you want to call these offerings from the Miami Jewish Film Festival, they are interesting true stories that reveal the lightness and the darkness of the past century.
The Florida premiere of The Jazzman from the Gulag, from director Pierre-Henry Salfati, traces the little-known life of Eddie Rosner, one of the Twentieth Century's great musicians. Rosner, who spent his entire career in Eastern Europe, was so respected he was sought out by many American jazz masters, including Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Yet he's a virtual unknown to the public. Rosner was a Jew from Germany who found himself trapped in Poland during Hitler's rise. After many years as a famed trumpet player, he founded his own swing orchestra in Warsaw only to narrowly escape death when Germany attacked the city, bombing his theater into oblivion. With the blitzkrieg advancing from the west, Rosner's only choice was to flee eastward to the Soviet Union. There he was warmly received by top officials, many of whom were avid jazz fans, and became the toast of the U.S.S.R. Stalin even requested a private performance once, for an audience of one.
But after World War II, the Russians turned insular and xenophobic. Rosner was ostracized as a foreigner and a Jew, ironically branded a German spy despite his refugee past. Jazz music was labeled a corruptive foreign influence and suppressed. And Rosner, as the most renowned jazzman in Europe, was targeted as an example for punishment. When he tried to return to Poland, he was arrested for treason and sentenced to ten years imprisonment in the Soviet gulags. Despite his misfortune Rosner continued to create music. He organized prison bands and toured various prison camps with his musicians. It was only years later, in the relatively liberal Fifties, that he was released and rehabilitated by Soviet leaders. Once again he was hailed as a great Soviet artist, playing to packed concerts in the major cities. Seizing a chance to travel abroad, Rosner fled to Germany, returning finally to the land of his birth, hoping for new creative freedoms. He died soon after of a heart attack in 1976, largely ignored by Western Europe, which had forgotten his talent.
This sad but fascinating tale is told with tremendous style and energy. Using an amazing array of period-film footage and photos, Salfati really brings Rosner to life -- maybe too much to life. Several dubious techniques threaten to turn this documentary into a docudrama. Much of the narrative is spoken in the first person by an actor reading Rosner's own words from a letter he once wrote describing his life. This technique generally is acceptable in documentary circles, but Salfati augments it with shots of a hand writing the letter, as if it were Rosner's own. Actors impersonate Rosner, Stalin, and other real people. Where does fact end and fiction begin? Is this reportage or dramatization? These concerns aside Jazzman is an excellent true-life story, filled with dazzling music. Ultimately, it's a story of a genius abused and wasted, but it's told with such panache that a certain victory is achieved. Do what you want to the artist, this film seems to say; the art will triumph anyway.
A much more traditional approach is used by Lori Cheatle in From Swastika to Jim Crow, the account of Jewish refugee academicians who fled Nazi Germany to the United States, seeking new employment. Shunned by traditional (and anti-Semitic) U.S. universities, the Jewish intellectuals found work teaching at all-black colleges in the segregated South. This obscure bit of Americana offers some interesting ideas about oppression and otherness. Certainly many of the Jewish professors noted the irony of their new lives. Although they were the oppressed minority in Europe, they were accepted among white oppressors in the American South, while the black minority suffered in ways remarkably similar to Jews in prewar Germany.
The film takes the testimonials of many surviving professors and their former black students from that era. These students, now graying and many retired, speak with tremendous eloquence and dignity about their old teachers and the education they provided. The film spools out in a stately, measured pace, offering an interesting depiction of Southern segregated life in the Forties and Fifties, before and during the onset of the civil-rights movement. Unlike Jazzman this film sticks to the traditional documentary format: file footage, photos, interviews. No dramatizations or what-if depictions here.
But the straight-ahead approach has a downside. Many of the subjects here -- Nazi persecution, Southern bigotry, and racial conflict -- have become routine, and the issue of Jews on black campuses doesn't have much potential to hold an audience for too long. And From Swastika to Jim Crow runs on too long for its subject. Shorter often is better.
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