Celluloid Thinkers Unite
Ah, summer. What would it be without barbecues, beaches, and blockbusters?
And in terms of the latter, we're talking the cinematic variety, big feature flicks playing multiple screens at the local megaplex, long lines, explosive action, surround sound, special effects, the whole Hollywood hog. Alien vs. Predator, The Village, and She Hate Me have all the ingredients of the summer smash, and hundreds of millions of dollars among them to show for it.
So what is a thought-provoking foreign film such as Rosenstrasse, a story about the "Aryan" wives of Jewish men in World War II Germany, doing onscreen in the mindless days of summer, competing against films such as White Chicks and Anchorman?
"It seemed like a good thing to do because summer's a time of blockbusters, which are always great, but sometimes you want to think a little bit," says Ellen Wedner, director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, which is making the move from December to March starting this year, to avoid the crush of competing cultural events around the holidays.
It is all part of the continued evolution of the decade-old festival, which has grown into a nine-day event with more than 50 titles of student films, shorts, documentaries and features, all with Jewish themes. The festival has screened such critically acclaimed hits as The Pianist and Nowhere in Africa, despite competing for films with some 160 other Jewish film fests around the globe as well as innumerable other specialty film festivals.
"It's hard, even on the festival circuit, when you write for films sometimes they say öNo no, we're over festivals, we can't send you this.' There were a couple films I was looking at this summer that they refused to let me have because they played too many festivals," says Wedner. "So the fact that we've been able to attract good quality films really makes me very happy and I think that will continue."
Wedner didn't want to go more than a year before the next event came around in March 2005. "What if they forgot about us?" she wonders. So an abbreviated version of the festival was organized for a summer stopover, one that showcases four features and a documentary.
The underlying theme to all the films this summer is the Holocaust, something that Wedner says was by chance as they were selecting based on the quality of filmmaking and the strength of the storyline. "You finally slog through all the films and find the ones that are good," she says. "And I realized they were Holocaust films, but all done of course by people from the next generation, so I think it's a little different take."
Besides Rosenstrasse, which is set for commercial release at the end of August, one of the strongest films in the festival is Journey to Jerusalem by veteran Bulgarian director Ivan Nitchev. Set in Bulgaria in 1940, the film opens with two young German-Jewish children on a train with their elderly uncle, bound for the southern coast and a ship to Palestine and freedom. When the uncle dies suddenly onboard, the children are just as abruptly orphaned at the next train stop, only to be rescued by a small troupe of traveling vaudevillian performers.
From there the film is less about the children, who say little (they initially pretend to be deaf and dumb), than about the trio of performers who adopt them into their lives. But the cherubic youngsters waken the maternal desires of the young, ravishing Zara, and eventually soften the edges of her tough, fiery boyfriend, Dimmy.
It is a heartwarming story that's never predictable or overly sentimental, exuding charm and evoking the atmosphere of Eastern Europe with its rich muted tones of browns and grays. The performances are all solid, especially troupe performer Sammy, who's downright Chaplin-esque as the kindly "uncle" to the two children.
And yet this is the surprising kind of foreign film that could only be seen on the festival circuit, the type Wedner has an eye for. "I look for films from all around the world," she says. "Very few international films ever see the light of day in this country, and they're good."
Another such film is the riveting documentary on the life of famed German-Jewish actor and director Kurt Gerron. Narrated by actor Ian Holm and using archival footage from the Twenties through the Forties, Prisoner of Paradise tells the story of the popular stage performer who moved into film in the heady days of Berlin before Hitler's rise.
A friend and colleague of German stars including Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, and Billy Wilder, Gerron starred in such early classics as The Threepenny Opera and Blue Angel. Yet the workaholic Gerron ignored the warning signs of fascism and was eventually interred in a camp with other Jewish artists, where he was forced to direct a propaganda film for the Nazis.
Prisoner is a well-produced documentary that offers insights not only on prewar Germany's film and theater culture, a world removed from the politics of the time, but also on the life of a talented artist who could have enjoyed Hollywood fame if not for his tragic end.
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