The Clown and the Fuhrer

5-23 November 2008


In a perfect world, Australian filmgoers would be juggling super-sized boxes of buttery popcorn and buckets of icy cola syrup, and settling into plush theatre seats to watch Edouard Cortés’s The Clown and the Fuhrer. The mesmerising based-on-a-true-story account relives the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by a clown, a co-performer of the famed Spanish entertainer Charlie Rivel, enlisted to entertain das Fuhrer on his birthday. The gripping drama examines Spanish life under Nazism for entertainers, Jews and Nazis alike, escalating to a tense will-he-won’t-he climax (despite the fact we know, most assuredly, he won’t) that left its audience breathless with anticipation.

Instead, we film fans are offered a couch-jumping Scientologist as one-eyed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (even the name sounds made up) over-acting his way through Nazi Germany in Valkyrie. Certainly the parallel of a clown and Tom Cruise is not wasted on this writer, but it seems more than a little unjust that poor old Charlie Rivel’s story will remain so unseen – except at events like the Festival of Jewish Cinema, held every year in Melbourne and Sydney.

Throughout the year, Australians are treated to an abundance of international film events presenting movies which would otherwise bypass local cinemas. The Festival of Jewish Cinema is one of the largest events,comprising 21 films (and a two-part screening of eight episodes of the Israeli television drama, A Touch Away), offering a broad mix of fact and fiction and, for the first time, a children’s program. I acted as a volunteer usher at a number of sessions and sought out others for my own interest; my inaugural Festival of Jewish Cinema proved greatly rewarding.

Surviving with Wolves

The tragedy of the Holocaust remains the contextual armature on which a number of films in the Festival are built. Narrative films and documentaries alike were concerned with the Jewish experience during and after World War II from the perspective of the French (Christophe Malavoy’s Zone Libre), Ukrainian (Romain Icard’s Shoah by Bullet), Hungarian (Roberta Grossman’s Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh), Dutch (Michèle Ohayon’s Steal a Pencil for Me) and Belgian (Véra Belmont’s Survivre avec les loups / Surviving with Wolves). Other films focused on the contemporary issues of the Gulf War (Shiva / The Seven Days, Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz) and of Israel and the Gaza Strip (Amos Gitai’s Disengagement). Lighter-hearted viewing came in the form of the documentaries such as David Blumenfeld and Matthew Kalman’s Circumcise Me, about a converted Orthodox Jewish stand-up comedian, and Barak Heymann’s Dancing Alfonso, which followed a troupe of elderly flamenco dancers.

The opening night film, Surviving with Wolves, is a controversial juxtaposition of history and imagination. Based on an “autobiography” by Misha Defonseca (Belgium’s answer to Helen Demidenko), the film follows the bratty but endearing 7 year-old Misha, whose Belgian-Jewish parents send to live with a Catholic family as the threat of deportation closes in around them during World War II. When her adoptive family proves far stricter than she is prepared to tolerate, Misha flees Belgium and traverses Europe in search of her parents. On the way, she is “adopted” by a pack of gorgeously fluffy wolves who feed and protect her, raising the increasingly wild girl as their own until she finally arrives in the Ukraine. Misha’s disintegration from cocky, bright-eyed schoolgirl into a muddy, dread-locked urchin eating worms in the rain is a punch to the eyes and heart, a blunt force reminder (as if we could forget) that children are the most innocent victims of war. Though she escaped the inevitable fate of her parents, Misha’s fight for survival is no less harrowing: she is cold, hunted and terrified. The Holocaust was a brutal assault not only on those taken to concentration camps, but to those who weren’t. While Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years was initially touted as an account of her childhood, it was revealed shortly after the film’s release to be a work of fiction or, as the non-Jewish author explained, “not actual reality, but [her] reality.” Still, as a work of fiction, the film remains a beautifully directed story of survival and a testament to the determination of war survivors. Young Mathilde Goffart is utterly wonderful as the resilient Misha and Belmont is adept at capturing the bonds forged out of necessity.

Steal a Pencil for Me

Actual reality was the focus of the glorious documentary, Steal a Pencil for Me. This fairytale story examines the almost unfathomable series of coincidences (or fate, if you’re the romantic type) that lead to the grandest love ignited within the confines of the Westerbork concentration camp. We are introduced to Ina and Jaap Polak on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary. Their story begins in 1943 when they meet at a birthday party, one of the last remaining liberties allowed to Jews under Nazi occupation in Holland. Jaap was unhappily married to Manja and Ina was dating a childhood sweetheart, but it was love at first sight (for Jaap, at least). Their paths crossed again later the same year, but under very different circumstances, when Jaap, Ina and Manja were imprisoned within the same barracks of the Dutch labour camp. Despite their agreement to divorce post-war, Manja refused her husband a girlfriend in Ina, driving the new lovers to secretive letter-writing and, according to Ina, “a fair amount of necking” when the opportunity arose. The pair would be split, but astonishingly reunited, when both are sent to Bergen-Belsen. They are split again during deportation from Bergen-Belsen, but are freed by the allies before their respective trains arrive at what would likely have been their final destination. Jaap, left comatose from typhus, is found in a Dutch hospital by his sister, who reunites him his beloved Ina. They would marry within six months. Archival footage and photographs from the war, re-enactments of the couple’s letters being written and read, and interviews with Ina, Jaap and their surviving family and friends lace together a story so incredible that no word or image is extraneous. Jaap is now a frank and sprightly 93 year-old who laughs at his cardiologist’s surprise that he still has such an active sex life. Still beautiful Ina is a Real Lady who looks at least two decades younger than her 83 years, revealing she put curlers in her hair every night during her imprisonment. Their complete adoration for one another is apparent in every shot together; their devotion is a paean to the magical ideal of love quite literally conquering all.

Less romantic but highly enlightening was Ran Tal’s excellent documentary Children of the Sun, a fascinating study of the first generation of children to live under the utopian ideal of kibbutzim. The film is comprised entirely of silent archival footage of kibbutz children and the recollections of some of them as now-elderly narrators being interviewed by the director. Children is a film of contradictions. The winsome images on screen are often negated by the voiceovers; the kibbutzniks tell us that the robust children paddling about barefoot in their large age-divided bedrooms cried themselves to sleep. Sometimes they would sneak out at night, wailing for their parents. One poor child, they tell us, was nearly (accidentally) shot by security for “breaking in” to the adults compound. Parents were addressed by their names, rather than as “Mum” or “Dad”. The children longed for the immediate familial bonds denied under kibbutzim – these “children of the sun” were to be raised communally, as equals, with shared responsibilities and privileges, with the ultimate goal of an egalitarian Jewish society. Yet there is little bitterness within the reminiscences. The former kibbutzniks are matter-of-fact about the societal changes they were expected to implement. Their parents wanted them to change the world; they simply grew up. While many of the narrators tearfully declared kibbutzim a failed experiment and refused to raise their own children likewise, there lingers a resigned acceptance of their parents’ vision. That vision was borne out of love for their children and a desire for the betterment of Jewish society – utopia, perhaps, comes in several forms.

The screening partner of Children of the Sun was less compelling; countless audience members who committed to Rehuven Hecker’s Go in Peace, Rain changed their minds and exited before the first quarter (I was a volunteer usher for this session and gratefully accepted the opportunity to call it a night at half time). Certainly, the film may have made an interesting half-hour documentary for those interested in the history of Jewish music, but it stumbled as an 84 minute, late Thursday night cinema experience.

The inclusion of this apparent “lesser” film, and the encore screenings of two others (one of which was shown at two previous Festivals), poses questions about the state of Jewish cinema. Are there so few Jewish films available, be they of Israeli origin or other, for film festival inclusion that organisers must opt for repeat presentations and disappointing documentaries? Is Jewish cinema defined, as Australian cinema often is, by how much “Jewishness” is featured? Are there in fact scores of Jewish comedies, romances, thrillers, musicals and children’s films worthy of festival exhibition that Australian audiences are to remain ignorant of because they lack the prerequisite Jewishness?

Just An Ordinary Jew

Indeed, this notion of a definable Jewishness is examined in painstaking detail in Ein Ganz gewöhnlicher Jude (Just An Ordinary Jew, 2005; the film that also screened in 2006 and 2007), from lauded German director, Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment [The Experiment, 2001], Der Untergang [Downfall, 2004]). Based on the book of the same name by Charles Lewinsky, the film is simple in premise but laden with the vast contradictions and challenges of living “Jewish”. Emanuel Goldfarb is a German-Jewish journalist invited by a local teacher to come and speak to his class about the experience of being a Jewish man in contemporary Germany. The invitation renders Goldfarb immediately voluble as he launches into his Dictaphone a proposed reply to the teacher. He rejects what he interprets as a politically correct request to be a sort of living breathing museum exhibit of how one man, despite the insinuated disability of being Jewish, has triumphed in the country that tried so hard to exterminate his people. Pacing his apartment and railing against the invitation, his country and his own Jewishness, he curses the double-edged sword of his ancestry, the way their collective experiences – real and imagined – helped and hindered him in becoming the man he is today. Goldfarb’s Dictaphone becomes the therapist he never knew he needed for the feelings he was never aware were so repressed.

Children of the Sun

The Festival program left nothing to surprise – the outcome, which may well have found our protagonist throwing his Dictaphone out the window in disgust, was revealed in the guide as a “dreamlike postscript ending” whereby Goldfarb is seen “sitting in a classroom before a sea of innocent young German faces.” The invitation he so objurgated at the beginning of the film is ultimately accepted, it seems, because he now has some answers to the questions of what it means to be Jewish. Goldfarb is the sum of his parts. He is a Jewish man living in contemporary Germany with a story worth telling.

Over the credits of Children of the Sun, director Ran Tal tells his mother that she has earned a cup of tea for singing to him a cherished childhood lullaby. She requests three sugars and he asks, why three? How can she drink it so sweet? The mother replies that she’d like to make herself as fat as possible. Likewise during Just An Ordinary Jew, Goldfarb relays into his Dictaphone his mother’s penchant for three or four sugars in her tea, her “incurable sweet tooth” the result of time spent in concentration camps during the war. And in Steal a Pencil for Me, Jaap insists he will take both artificial sweetener and sugar in his tea (Ina refuses him the sugar). This motif of over-indulgence suggests that wounds are still healing, that sugary tea is one small measure for filling the voids left by a particularly Jewish experience of enforced subsistence. These old folks drink such saccharin tea simply because, at last, they can.

Festival of Jewish Cinema website: http://www.jewishfilmfestival.com.au