Volume 73, Number 38 | January 21 - 27, 2004

Film

THE JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
The Walter Reade Theatre
165 W. 65th St.
Jan. 14-29
212-875-5600
Screenings are $10; student,
senior discounts available
or www.thejewishmuseum.org


Reckonings With The Past

Secrets of Jewish lives at core of festival offerings

By JERRY TALLMER

Anouk Aimee plays Myriam in the hauntingly lyrical “The Birch Tree Meadow,” above. Below, Menachem Daum of Brooklyn, a writer, producer and director of the documentary “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust,” and his sons.

An exquisite woman in a smart black pantsuit, a vivid red bow at the throat, checks into a small hotel in Poland, thousands of miles from where she now lives. The next day she goes for a walk. Her profile alone would stop traffic, even trains, even today, but not the boxcars that once ran on the tracks down which her stylish Paris boots now stride, long-abandoned tracks cutting through the grass, the endless grass that covers everything everywhere.

We hear a dog bark, a distant scream, some shouted, guttural orders.

Through barbed wire we see what she sees as she proceeds past a puddle, counting off to herself––one low toad-like concrete building, and another, and another, and another… an endless parade of low toad-like concrete structures, widely spaced apart, until she comes to a sprung-hinged rusted opening in the barbed wire that, doffing her topcoat, she squeezes through, then keeps walking and counting until she finally stops at a blank-faced toad that looks no different than all the others.

“My block,” we hear her think. “My barracks.”

She enters, slowly surveys its double-decker bunks, bit by bit supplying names to the bunks––Francoise, Michelle, Ginette, Suzanne, this one, that one, the other one. “Michelle slept here, I slept there. Michelle who would tell us beautiful stories.”

The sounds, the smells, the hell, the deaths. Death everywhere. “Papa,” we hear this beautiful woman say, “Papa, we saw each other once. I jumped into your arms. A German hit me.”

She exits the barracks. Outside, in the grass, her foot touches something metal. She bends down, picks up a twisted, battered music stand, picks up another, picks up a third. The three ancient stick-figure skeletons stand there together like a Giacometti as a ghostly oom-pah-pah band strikes up, the camera moves back, and the visitor from abroad starts marching through the grass to the harsh cadence count of “Ein, zwei, drei…”

In 1991, Myriam Rosenfeld, tattoo number 75750, has returned to Birkenau-Auschwitz, 46 years after she left there––shipped out––headed for Bergen-Belsen and the grave. Except that Myriam, then age 15, did not die. “I am alive!” the Myriam of 46 years later shouts from the top of a deserted Birkenau watchtower––shouts out over the silent grass, the railroad tracks, the birch trees. “Alive!”

Auschwitz was the town. Birkenau, two kilometers away, the camp. Birkenau means a birch-tree meadow, and “The Birch-Tree Meadow,” termed by its maker, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, “a work of fiction… drawn from real and authentic facts”––her own life’s facts––is the cinema perhaps closest to the heart of the thirteenth annual New York Jewish Film Festival, running January 14-29 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

No small part of the reason one might wish to attend this festival is Myriam (i.e., Marceline), played by Anouk Aimee, more stunning than any woman of her years, or any age (she has been a star since 1947), has any right to be, but stunning also as a quiet, controlled, complete actress who knows about Birkenau in her blood because Aimee herself happens to be Jewish.

Even in bright sunlight in this film, Anouk Aimee is timelessly beautiful. Only when Myriam is scrabbling around looking for a pit where the bodies were flung from the crematoria––this was all shot at Birkenau, a fantastic accomplishment in itself–– does the actress, for one harrowing instant, look her age.

A second good reason to wish to see “The Birch-Tree Meadow” is that collaborating with Marceline Loridan-Ivens on the script was none other than Jeanne Moreau, a formidable intelligence in her own right.

A third reason is the fictional thread in the film: Myriam’s chance encounter and subsequent give-and-take with a young German named Oskar (actor August Diehl) who hangs around Birkenau, camera in hand, looking for he does not know what; what he does know, and soon discloses to Myriam, is that his grandfather was an S.S. colonel at this extermination camp.

She blows up, then apologizes. It is not Oskar’s fault. Less quickly will she now or ever be reconciled with the Polish woman who inhabits the house in Cracow in which Myriam’s father once lived, and who inquires malevolently, when a local historian brings Myriam around for a confirming look: “She’s come to reclaim the Jew’s property?” (Sixty-five thousand Cracow Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.)

Myriam can never forgive herself for not having called out, at roll call, at Birkenau, the name of a runaway fellow prisoner. The girl, who had begged Myriam to cover for her, was caught and killed. “Did we survive?” Myriam asks another survivor 50 years later, “because we were stronger than the others, or because we let the others die for us?” It seems as good a question as any for everybody, even today, at the dawning of this new year.

An expedition to Poland is, by odd coincidence, also the subject of a much different festival entry, “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust,” a documentary written, produced, and directed by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky.

“Hiding and Seeking” is a curious, almost surreal piece of film in which Menachem Daum, self-assured Brooklyn-raised son of Holocaust survivors who met and married at a refugee camp in occupied Germany at war’s end, drags his own two grown sons––skinny, black-garbed Yeshiva graduate students living in Jerusalem, considerably more introspective types than Daum himself––with him (and cameras, cell phones, computers, microphones), in a van, to Poland, on a kind of mission of peace-seeking and redemption.

But first Daum interviews––persists in interviewing––his aged, quavering father, who’s still scared of Poles killing Jews long after the war. The old man finally squeezes out an “I’m dead” that is paralleled by Daum’s “I’m going home” on the way to JFK Airport. “This ain’t my home,” mutters one of the skeptical tall-hatted sons.

And of course they do find anti-Semitism in Poland, as well as a site where the Nazis set up a gallows and hanged ten Jews in the ghetto with every occupant forced to watch––original grainy footage courtesy of a German cameraman––but they also, through some miracle, and unflagging persistence, track down the town, Zdonske Wola, and the farm, and two old timers, a grizzled, long-jawed old man and a bent-over very old woman, who in fact had hidden Menachem Daum’s father in an underground sanctuary, covered by hay, with the Germans tramping atop it, from 1943 to 1945.

And in all the years since, these two righteous Poles had never received one word of thanks for it from the survivor, Daum’s father, not even a single postcard. “Tell her we’re here to correct that,” says Daum. Well, as Hitler said, or as this movie would have us believe Hitler said, “Conscience is a Jewish invention.” Still, I don’t think those two gawky sprouts went back to Jerusalem full of new peace and light or anything else. But pop got a movie out of it.

From topnotch Israeli director Amos Gitai comes “Alila,” a bustling, watchable two-hour drama built around the diverse dwellers in one working-class Tel Aviv apartment complex: a small-time Chinese-hiring contractor (Uri Klauzner) and his caustic estranged wife (Hanna Laslo); their alienated, Army-deserting teenaged son (Amit Mestechkin); a lunatic Amazon-sized policewoman (Ronit Elkabetz); a great-looking girl (Yael Abecassis) and the psychopath (Amos Lavie) she can’t get enough of in bed. The girl’s performance and utterances of arousal are a bedroom besting of anything Meg Ryan can supply in a cafeteria.

Similar in structure to Ettore Scola’s wonderful 1974 “We All Loved Each Other Very Much,” the Gitai work, which reaches town on January 27, is less overtly political by far––unless you happen to live in Israel, where “chassis,” in the Sean O’Casey sense, comes daily with the morning coffee. New York can thank the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center for importing a little taste of that coffee, and many other wakeups, every year for 13 years now.

I also look forward to “Kafka Goes to the Movies”, about motion pictures that Franz Kafka apparently really liked, and “James’s Journey to Jerusalem,” about naïveté and cynicism in the real world, slated for a commercial booking tied to its January 28 premiere at the Walter Reade.


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