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The 74th Berlin International Film Festival could not have taken place on a more politicised stage. Not only did the festival reflect, as it typically does, the preoccupations of the world in the films selected, but many films mirrored trauma and violence past and acutely present. Far from the glitz and glamour of former Berlinale programs, awash with big names and crowd-pleasing entertainment, the 2024 edition seemed to lean into all that ails us: the pandemic and its aftermath, the war in Ukraine, Europe’s colonial past, the rift between private life and government repression in Iran, and the recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, although not yet widely present in films, could be felt in the ways that many filmmakers positioned themselves before and after their screenings and, to the horror of local German politicians, during the awards ceremony.1 Perhaps artistic director Carlo Chatrian, who kicked off his Berlinale tenure in ill-fated 2020 with an invigorating, Locarno-infused realignment of the festival around a more cinephilic notion of film art, no longer felt the need to please after he was so inelegantly disposed of by those same German politicians last year.2 

In his final Berlinale, it was harder to find the fun, the joy, the lightheartedness that is also the province of cinematic artistry. I found myself uncharacteristically wandering over to the Panorama – whose breadth and diversity of offerings usually lack the stringent curatorial signature of the other sections – for glimmers of hopefulness. I happened upon new, mature, and more generously budgeted work of a once hyperly prolific DIY New York filmmaker, Nathan Silver, who has finally been given tools worthy of his talent. Between the Temples, starring Carol Kane and Jason Schwartzman, had something I was looking for: levity in troubled times; the tender regard of a writer-director towards his characters; and the recognition of the profound humanity in humour.

Silver, who always stood out from more mumblecore-ish contemporaries in his gravitation towards intergenerational ensembles and narratives more rooted in class consciousness, cut his teeth on video features (running the gamut from SD to HD to betacam): Exit Elena (2012) about a home aide with no home of her own; Soft in the Head (2013), which is set in a New York City halfway house with echoes of Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956); Uncertain Terms (2014), which centres on a rural home for pregnant teenage girls; and Stinking Heaven (2015), a 1990s’ period piece in a suburban home for sober living. Consciously aligning himself with the work ethic and anti-theatre ensemble orientation of an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the improvisational virtuosity of John Cassavetes, the film-historically savvy Silver, a graduate of NYU’s Dramatic Writing Department and a denizen of New York’s arthouse and revival cinemas, has typically assembled his casts out of an “amalgam” à la Italian Neorealism of actors and nonactors,3 even making an actress of his mother Cindy, much like Fassbinder did with Lilo Pempeit. 

These early films had a way of gradually driving characters into extreme states, into moments of confrontation and excess, often over a shared meal. But these eruptions of emotion in communal living environments were never just a microbudget gimmick; they revealed greater dramatic aspirations. Silver’s genuine concern about the human condition skews socialist, and his sense of place, much like that of fellow Jewish Brooklynites Eliza Hittman and Joanna Arnow, betrays a deep rootedness in the economically and culturally layered New York Metropolitan Area, which was passed on to Silver, himself raised in a Boston suburb, by parents from Queens. 

Between the Temples refreshingly relocates Jewish America to an Upstate, smalltown backdrop, as Silver sets in motion an intricate tragicomic balancing act. The lovingly pathetic middle-aged cantor Ben (played by Schwartzman) struggles to sing after the loss of his wife, an alcoholic novelist. Relegated to teaching pubescent Hebrew School students at the temple and living at home with his mums, the holier-than-thou Filipina convert Judith (played by Dolly de Leon) and the more secular Meira (played by Caroline Aaron), Ben is bent on self-destruction. After one particularly embarrassing drunken incident at a bar, he bumps into Carla (played by Kane), his grade school music teacher, who knew him as a musically gifted child. She, too, has lost her husband. When she turns up in Ben’s b’nai mitzvah class, seeking to get the bat mitzvah she never had as a red diaper baby, they embark on a friendship with notes of mutual compassion and romance that neither the mums nor the rabbi (Robert Smigel) nor his beautiful, available daughter Gabby (Madeline Weinstein) nor Carla’s hipster son (Matthew Shear) can fathom. 

Between the Temples

Much like 1970s’ precursors such as Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), they run up against the judgment and disbelief of others. It is not just other characters who resist these unions; an initial repugnance is built into the films’ contract with the spectator. We are to be gradually won over and slowly convinced of what we do not, at first, believe. But this is precisely where Silver, who wrote the film together with C. “Chris” Mason Wells, flexes his love of human complexity. He makes the spectator complicit in Ben and Carla’s friendship from the outset. And, through clever casting, ensures our benevolence. After all, Schwartzman is the affable comic force of countless Wes Anderson films from Rushmore (1998) onwards, and Carol Kane, a steadily familiar presence in U.S. film and television, whose ethereal features and unmistakable voice punctuate the media memories of American audiences of Schwartzman’s generation.4 What’s more, Silver and omnipresent New York indie cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who has shot for Alex Ross Perry, Robert Greene, Dustin Guy Defa, the Safdie brothers, and himself on The Sweet East [2023]) purposely crafted a 1970s-‘80s nostalgic aesthetic by shooting on 16mm colour film – its textures, warmth, and grains subtly underscoring this sense of recognition, a return to analogue times, to the simplicity of, for some of us, childhood.

Both Williams and the film’s editor John Magary, also a filmmaker, indulge in fits of jaunty visual exuberance. A sudden pan, a flash of red, or a playful cut serve as reminders of the fun and joy in life, the new possibilities that arise out of personal suffering and growth. Form follows character, but also reinvigorates our expectations of what films can do, what they can be, and how it can feel to watch them. Throughout, Silver, the puppet master, gently pulls our (heart)strings while gleefully winding up his characters and the actors playing them for a full-on collision: the shabbat dinner of all shabbat dinners. On the eve of Carla’s bat mitzvah, various character alignments converge around the dinner table at Ben’s childhood home. While the rabbi’s family and the mums are scheming to set Ben up with Gabby – a seemingly perfect solution to everyone’s travails, Ben has invited Carla, with whom he enjoys a fulfilling and intense, ambiguous friendship. Her presence is a catalyst of emotional chaos. An increasingly awkward group dynamic emerges as initial intentions get thwarted, exposing raw nerves and their deeper truth. 

After forays into complex romantic triangulations in his immediately prior features Thirst Street (2017), set in Paris, and The Great Pretender (2018), set in New York’s theatre scene, Silver puts his carefully honed skills as a writer-director of scripted improvisation on full display in the shabbat scene of Between the Temples. Not only does each group have objectives of its own, but each individual has his or her own nuanced vectors that undercut the cohesiveness of any alliances between characters. Rather than artificially tightening the scene with an eye towards an efficient dramaturgical outcome, Silver revels in unfurling, by degrees, the full messiness of conflict and requires us, the spectators, to stay at the table at eye level, cringing with recognition, suspended between tears and laughter, as Ben gradually liberates himself from the weight of other people’s expectations. The fact that each actor so convincingly and idiosyncratically remains in character, committing to and seeing this collective trajectory through, while Silver, Williams, and Magary work to keep all of their perspectives in view results in empathy not only for Ben and Carla, but also for every character in the room. 

In our volatile world, Between the Temples serves as a reminder that cinema, in helping us to see, feel, withstand, and comprehend, can also do its part to restore and maintain our humanity.

I spoke with Nathan Silver in February 2024, during and immediately after the Berlin International Film Festival.

Nathan Silver: How is your festival so far?

Brigitta Wagner: Depressing. Your film is one of the happiest ones I’ve seen. And I’m wondering if we’re just in a moment in which there’s no levity. 

What was your creative life like during the pandemic?

It was an odd time because I had a script that was out to actors right before the pandemic, and it immediately got squashed when everything shut down. It was about a cop as a protagonist, and obviously no actor wanted to play a cop. Then Miramax reached out to my agent because they had a new head. He had seen one of my movies and was like, “Oh, maybe you could make something for a few million dollars.” They wanted to get a bunch of scripts at that time. So, I wrote a script for Miramax and Paramount. I was in the midst of doing that when [producer] Adam Kersh came to me and said he could find money for an idea that we had been kicking around for a while. So, I ended up writing two scripts at the same time with Chris Wells. We would just meet on a regular basis and work through these two very different scripts, but which were both about family dynamics. One’s a mother-daughter relationship. The other one obviously has a boy and mother figures.

But it was starts and stops. I feel like reality is coming back in spurts, where we haven’t quite returned to the way that we dealt with things before. Yet we are continually trying to convince ourselves that we are capable of understanding the world as it is these days in the way that we understood it before, but it’s shifted. Our psychologies have shifted, too. I mean, we’re not the same humans anymore. We’d like to believe we are.

Between the Temples

So how did the idea for Between the Temples come together?

I was making a documentary about my mum, and while shooting it, I found out that she was going to b’nai mitzvah classes so she could get her bat mitzvah. I had no idea because she grew up in this communist, atheist household and was just culturally Jewish. She had just moved to a new town with my dad. They were looking to make friends, meet people, so they joined the temple. She got pulled into this class but never ended getting her bat mitzvah because she just wanted to be part of the community. I told this to Adam at a party about six years ago, and he was like, “There’s a movie there. Wouldn’t it be funny to do a Harold and Maude riff, but about a bat mitzvah?” I was like, “Maybe.” Adam was relentless about it in a great way. If he has ideas and wants to make something happen, he makes it happen. He got Ley Line [Entertainment] involved, and they were willing to finance a treatment and development. Then it was off to the races from there. It took Chris and me a while to crack. It was a lot of months of working through all the different variations of May-December romances and what this one would look like. In the end it was more about how to paint a spiritual connection between two people and how the world reacts in such a strong way, like you don’t want to see how two people connect.

You mentioned Harold and Maude as one reference point. Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf also comes to mind. In those two films there’s a bit of a shock value to the pairing of a younger man with an older woman as if you’re supposed to be taken aback or disgusted somehow and then gradually won over. What I find so fascinating about the way you handle it is that there is never for a moment this intention of generating disgust in the viewer. Within the temple community, but not in the relationship to the viewer. 

It was also about looking at their relationship and their dynamic and looking at the actors who would be playing these characters. It would happen almost unbeknownst to them that they would fall for each other. It wouldn’t be a matter of repulsion. Each of them would be exactly what the other one is looking for. And that’s contrasted with Ben’s relationship with the Gabby character. Even if it’s a better fit on the surface level, it’s completely flawed thinking because he doesn’t connect with this person.

Right. Both literally and figuratively she dons a mask to get closer to him.

The mask of his dead wife.

I was intrigued by your casting. On one hand you’ve got Jason Schwartzman in the role of Ben. He’s worked with Wes Anderson a lot, in a certain mode of comic performance. And then you’ve got Carol Kane, who has worked broadly across film and television for decades, and has an almost comforting, though hard to pinpoint familiarity and appeal to people in our generation. I was thinking about how Fassbinder brought in Brigitte Mira as a similar sort of familiar face in Angst essen Seele auf and how this familiarity of the performer intersected with a more challenging and complex role. What was the genesis of casting these two leads?

So, the film was written for Jason, and we couldn’t figure out who was going to play Carla. I was on my honeymoon. I had Covid, which I had caught at the wedding. I had lost my sense of taste and smell, but I did sniff out something. I felt like I knew who Carla should be. It was right in front of me, and I was like, “Oh, fuck. It’s Carol Kane.” And then I wrote to the producers and Chris, and they were like, “Oh yeah, duh, it’s Carol Kane.” Just thinking about her in her role in Hester Street (1975), a seminal Jewish movie, and the idea of bringing her back all these years later in this Jewish movie had a certain poetry about it. She has such a strong personality onscreen that it was like, we can play with that persona and bring more depth to it. She does a lot of TV roles, and she’s always wonderful. But what would a leading character look like? We were able to get to Jason through Damien Bonnard, who was in Thirst Street. They had worked together on Asteroid City, so Damien recommended me to Jason and said, “You should really read the script. You’ll love Nathan. You guys will really hit it off.” And Carol luckily loved Jason already. She loved Rushmore and had followed his career. She watched the documentary I made about my mum and got it and then signed on. Any actor at that point doesn’t want to do a scrappy, independent film. You have to convince them. The idea that Jason was already signed on was some comfort, but it’s one of those things, where this all could have just disappeared. Cause it’s not the same luxuries that come with the standard TV shoot.

I immediately buy Jason in the role, in the kind of tragicomic range he’s capable of. With Carol Kane, there’s something about her as a performer – the voice, the hair – certain fragmented images of her that remained with me from childhood, sort of transcending any one role. But I was amazed by what she is capable of, the depth she can convey, in a complex, bigger role. There are a number of steadily working actors, whose skills we take for granted.

It’s unfortunate. It’s just how actors are pigeon-holed. What’s incredible about Carol is that a good friend of hers is Gena Rowlands. And she was in a play that was supposed to be [John] Cassavetes and Elaine May directing, so she did a whole workshop with them. She would constantly reference that. Because as much as the film was scripted, there was a lot of improv involved that we built off the script. I would hear her on the COMTEK sometimes just talking herself through a difficult scene, and she’d be like, “As John said…” And I’d be like, “Oh, wow.” It’s funny because Amy Taubin just said that Carol is my Gena Rowlands. And I was like, “That’s going to mean the world to Carol.”

Between the Temples

Between the Temples had a budget of a few million dollars. How does this compare to your earlier films?

The highest budget I ever had was $250,000. Most of them were like $50,000.

Still, you were able to accomplish amazing things with nonactors and up-and-coming talents in those tighter budget ranges. What was it like for you as a director to work with very experienced actors who were bringing their own methods and expectations?

They were very adaptable, and oddly enough, it was like shooting any of the other films. The strangest thing is that with inflation, money doesn’t go far. And it was still during that time when everyone was doing Covid tests, so that was a whole chunk of change. I mean, I had a script supervisor, I had a proper first A.D. and second A.D. My first A.D. Laura Klein saved our movie because she is truly a genius at scheduling. I didn’t realise that those people could prove so helpful on set. Now I do. Carol didn’t know what the set would look like, but then she got used to it and just started having fun. All the people on set had worked on The Sweet East, so they were all friends. I’ve known Sean [Price Williams] for years and worked with him two other times as a DP, and we’re good friends. It felt very communal. Carol loved that fact and became friendly with people. And Jason’s been on some of these sets before, so it’s easy for him to adapt. Whenever there’s a challenge, he seems to have fun with it. He’s a very kind and giving person. 

Usually, films that deal with American Jewish culture tend to be set in cities, maybe suburbs. One of the things that felt so refreshing about the film was its setting in smalltown Upstate New York. Was this a budgetary convenience, or was the location inherent to the story you wanted to tell?

It was deeply enmeshed because we wanted to shoot inside my parents’ temple. They live in Reinbeck, so we based ourselves in Kingston, where the temple was. Now this is not a slight against Upstate New York, but it’s inherently depressing. I find myself depressed there. So, I was like, “How do you embrace a place that you find beautiful, but also that has a sadness to it?” And I started thinking of these Soviet films by Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko. In particular, this movie Getting to Know the Big, Wide World (USSR 1980), which was big when I saw it at Lincoln Center in 2003 or something. The colours in that. So that informed the way we shot it. The sense of isolation and loneliness, but done in a very warm, affectionate way.

One thing that seems to link your films together is that rather than running towards pure cliché in character and setting, you open up spaces of possibility. That’s one reason that Dolly De Leon’s character Judith was so brilliant.

The very rigid convert. It’s by the book, rather than by the life, by the living. It’s so fascinating. And we wanted to show different aspects and levels of Judaism. Like the mother doesn’t care about the rules. And she’s just as Jewish as Judith, who’s only concerned with rules. It was funny to have that dynamic in the house.

But it’s not just in the contrast between the mums and the ways they practice their religion, but in your choice to situate Ben as the grown son within a two-mum household. Another film or filmmaker might pause on that, waiting for the comical effect to set in, but you run right through it as if it’s the most normal constellation in the world, which is far more radical. It’s not about garnering points for humour or political correctness by pausing for a beat on your own cleverness. 

The film was never directed for the comedy and never cut to the comedy. It was always like, let the comedy breathe within the scenes. Then it’s funnier and more inviting, and you can figure out your own ins for laughter. Then you have ridiculous things throughout – the door, the menus, the jokes. If it’s sprinkled with some slapstick elements, it just makes it more surprising and less about trying to dictate how the audience should feel about the movie because there are so many different elements that we tried to stuff inside this thing, that we hope it doesn’t explode. But it seems to be contained in there. 

If we think about the greater time we’re living in – the global upheaval and isolation of the pandemic, the wars, the imminence of a Biden-Trump rematch – there’s something generous and healing about the kind of story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it through a mix of drama, humour, realism, and playfulness. Between the Temples reminded me, in good ways, of the before times. A certain human sensibility.

That relates to Carla’s character. For me, she represents analogue time. In terms of film format, the reason we shot on film was that it’s part of her character, that warmth, the texture, everything about it. It’s like she’s bringing that sensibility that reinvigorates someone who’s depressed and just reaching middle age. Which I feel like is what I am. To get reinvigorated by someone who came up in a time that was pre-digital and pre-Internet and pre-all-these-things has a lot more warmth and humanity.

Between the Temples

When Kodak came up in the credits, and I understood that you had shot on film, I instantly thought of a story you had told me once about walking into a bar and convincing a stranger to fund your first feature, which was shot on 35mm film. My first thought was, “Oh, Nathan did this on 35mm. He did this on purpose.” But then when I found out you shot on 16mm, I was curious about that choice.

I’d never shot on 16mm before. I only shot on 35mm once, and I hadn’t shot on film in 15 years. So, it was a return of a kind, but a return to something I had never actually done. We were supposed to shoot that film on 16mm, but then we shot it on 35mm. The price difference was severe for our small budget on that first film. And I wanted the flexibility with Between the Temples to shoot as much as I would on digital and for it not to be a total crisis for the movie. We were thinking of Soviet cinema from the 1970s that made these barren landscapes somehow warm. So, we did tests and ended up pushing two stops, and that gave us the same quality as the Muratova film, which was ideal. It has a home movie quality, some people have said, that feels familiar. And I love that. 

Absolutely. If you don’t know at the outset that the movie is shot on film, you can’t quite put your finger on that quality. It’s so subtle. And then the revelation in the credits was like, “Yes, this is why. This matters. Texture matters.” But the subtle familiarity of the colours and the kind of warmth we’re talking about dovetails with other kinds of nostalgia – not just the kind of pre-digital character that Carla is, but also the pre-digital persona that Carol Kane is.

These colours are working parts of our brains that we think are dead possibly and fear are dead but are still stimulated by seeing them. We’re reacting to them. And it’s not just film grain on digital, which doesn’t quite scratch that same itch that film does. I hope that they will continue to produce Kodak film… A Different Man (2024) was on 16mm. Annie Baker’s film Janet Planet (2023) was on 16mm. They’re also made by filmmakers who live in New York.

Speaking of New York filmmakers, how did you end up working with Sean Price Williams again on this film, and can you talk a bit about the aspects of visual exuberance that cropped up in the cinematography and later in the editing? A flash of red, a playful pan . . . 

Or moments that are sped up… Sean and I, we’ve known each other for a long time. I think we met in 2004. I was an usher at Film Forum, and he was a manager at Kim’s Video. We would cross paths constantly. We knew of each other, and over time we became friends. We decided to work with each other and thought that it might lead to conflict, but instead it led to a wonderful time. Working with Sean is like working with another actor. He’s reacting to whatever the set is giving him. I love that and admire that about him, and I think it creates a dynamic quality that you can’t quite get by simply planning things out shot by shot. We come up with an idea, a scheme, but then it shifts as the scene shifts. He’ll try crazy stuff out. And I think what he likes about working with me is that that excites me. I think we dare each other to find more playful things to do. Because in the end it is about making something that’s enjoyable. And having a sense of invention. I revisited Orpheus (1950) by [Jean] Cocteau recently. I hadn’t seen it years and years, and the experimentation in it is so simple. All the effects are so simple. It’s like playing with what is at your hands. These techniques are exploited just for fun, and you can feel each effect. It comes from a human hand rather than this digital doom. And that’s something that Sean and I like: doing things in-camera.

Going into the edit, John was an editor on Thirst Street, and he’s a great director in his own right. And he has that playful, exuberant quality to his filmmaking, too, and he tries to draw it out in scenes. He tries to draw out the more inventive aspects of any given moment. So, it feels like there’s fun being had. Sean as a DP and John as an editor – their talents mix together so wonderfully. 

In the past, you were fairly involved in post-production. Were you right in there with John?

Some of the scenes are very much shot to script, and some are very much like going into a documentary and sorting things out. The shabbat scene was like editing a documentary because of the coverage and the way we did it [in multiple takes]. We would be in the same building, and John would get the scene into a place that he liked. When he had something to show me, I’d go up there, and we’d talk it through and maybe make some adjustments. And then I’d go downstairs, and he would continue adjusting. It was this back and forth. He said that having a director right behind you in the edit drains your energy more because there are more eyes on it. It’s like doing a commercial. But when you’re just able to go into a scene – the raw footage at first – to make something out of it, more fun can be had. 

I remember a time when you were churning out a microbudget feature every year. Does that way of working feel like a thousand years ago?

It does! And I feel like everyone had more energy and was willing to work on anything. And now it’s like getting people together in one space seems so difficult. I don’t know how we’ve changed so much, but I think there’s a general exhaustion. To get energy into a movie takes so much energy out of you, but after this shoot, I was just dead for two weeks in bed. I used to just go from one movie to another.

I completely follow you. It’s this pre- v. post-pandemic situation. Everything we used to do with ease has become so much harder. But in thinking about those other films, one of the things that always struck me is that you had this looseness and openness in your storytelling and in the way you mixed that with actors of varying degrees of training. Were these impulses from your early films helpful in making Between the Temples? Or were you trying to do something new yourself?

Well, I was very excited to work on writing the script for Jason and being able to get Jason for this. And then getting Carol was such a coup. And Dolly [De Leon] and Caroline Aaron and Robert Smigel and Maddy [Weinstein] and Matthew Shear. It felt really great to build this world of characters. But it was run basically the same way that Thirst Street was. There were more scripted pages but the same kind of energy on set, and we would shift things accordingly if something wasn’t working. And there were scenes that completely went off script as we went on, and it seemed we could get that kind of tension, that chaos that improv gives. If it served the scene, we would allow it in. What I take from my earlier films is that if you’re not hard-headed about your initial ideas, then things will work out in the end. Even if people at times are doubting whether it’s going to fit the story neatly. At this point I can sense if it’s going to work in the edit or not after doing so many improvised movies. So, it’s kind of neat to go between the scripted and the improvised and to find out where improvisation helps us and where it hurts us as we manoeuvre each day. And obviously it’s also circumstantial. If you lose a location or this or that thing, then it forces you to change how you’re going to move about your day or what the movie is. Or if a scene goes over, and you have to cut it – what that does to the rest of the movie. After making so many of these things, it feels like an extension, I suppose. But on a larger scale, with more people affected and more money at risk. But it’s heartening that you can still navigate it to its harbour.

We talked about Carol Kane as someone who has a real range of work over time. But with Jason, who has worked with Wes Anderson a lot, his work, his persona, his humour is associated with that Anderson world or imagination. How were they as specific people with specific skill sets able to manoeuvre within your system?

Jason was very open to bringing in ideas. He loves to ask you, “So what is this about?” And then he’ll be like, “I have a dumb idea.” But it’s always a brilliant idea. And he’ll be like, “What if I say this?” And Chris and I look at each other like, “Yeah, we wish we wrote that.” Like he came up with the telephone game in the shabbat scene, and that totally pushed things forward. It made total sense for him teaching all the kids at the temple and with his personality as Ben. It made total sense for him to suggest that. It just clicked, and it was a way to unload something onto a group of people sitting at the dinner table without just unloading it. Things like that. It would just be lines. 

And with Carol?

She had a lot of trepidation about improv. But she saw that Jason could do this thing, and he made her feel more comfortable about it. And then she grew to really love it. Then she almost wanted to work around the scripted things, and we’d have to be like, “No, no, no, this one is scripted.” But she loved the playfulness of it. 

Several of your earlier films include tense scenes of communal eating. Soft in the Head, your film set in a halfway house, comes to mind. 

Yeah, there are many. And there are two shabbat scenes in that movie, too. 

And Uncertain Terms. There’s something about dinner scenes. It’s not like two people eating together. You seem to gravitate towards this play between a very banal thing that happens every day and the potential to ignite these interactions, to cause them to explode. What draws you to these shabbat scenes, to shared meals in your films?

Dinner scenes were where the most drama in my family would happen. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or a dinner with my parents. It seems like it would go from us fighting to laughing to fighting. The food in the mouth. The chaos of the table. It’s also part of Jewish culture, sitting around and eating, which is why shabbat meal is so big every Friday. There’s something about having multiple people around a dinner table that’s going to lead to some conflict. You can’t help it. It just can’t pass without conflict. That’s what fascinates me. Once you have more than one person in a room, the conflict is present and will come. 

As a spectator, you know what each character is loaded with going into the shabbat scene. The point of departure is so loaded. There’s no way that it can be pure fun. There’s no way that everyone can get what they want. 

They come with all these motivations, and you spin the dreidel so to speak. It’s a whirling dervish of an encounter. Those excite me. I love feeling that sense of life. I remember the first time John showed me a cut of the dinner scene, and I felt like I was sitting through a family meal. Even though something like that never happened at a family meal, it just felt like I had lived this kind of tension before many a time. 

It’s great with all the different vectors. And even though you can align certain characters like the two mums or the rabbi and his family, nobody in a team is on the same team.

They’re contradicting each other. I find that at meals. When you go out with a couple, and you’re sensing the difference in reactions between the two, there’s a fascination there because they are seemingly on the same team, but they might be fighting against each other and working with you. There are feelings to be hurt, drinks to be had. 

The characters aside for a moment. You have an amazing ensemble of actors grouped around that table. Dolly De Leon has her own scene-stealing qualities. Her character is the holier-than-thou, more recent convert, by the book. At that moment, you’re thinking about what everyone’s stake is in Ben’s life. As a director going into that scene, what’s the preparation? What does everybody around that table need? How do you know when the group gets it right?

That scene was quite chaotic unto itself. We had two cameras going. And we shot three versions of the scene. The first version we had just written a day or so before. And it was very long. There were a lot of questions about why a person would use such and such a thing. There was already a sense of tension at the table because different actors wanted different things for their characters than what was written. So, we tried it first one way, and there was a general tension. And then we tried it another way. Again, general tension. Then we tried different ideas. Basically, we shot multiple versions of the scene over the course of two nights. And there was a lot of debate as to what the scene was or what it had to fulfil. And it was interesting to be in this space where everyone is asking questions. And I almost felt like it was a class of kids. I couldn’t sense whether there was going to be a mutiny that was going to explode past what was being shot and turn against the production, or… I love that sense of danger. That sense of anxiety is in the fabric and DNA of what was shot.

What John did later was basically use all three versions of the scene that we shot to build the scene. Which I thought was absolutely brilliant. He cracked it. Because we knew that it was going to be a hard scene to edit. He had been told about it from day one. He was like, “I’m sure it will be fine. We’ve figured out all these other scenes.” I’m like, “No, no. This is different.” And then we got to it. He looked through all the footage. And then I left for a dinner. I was at this dinner, and he was like, “Oh my god. This is worse than I thought.” It took him three weeks to edit it into what it is. The first version that he presented was maybe five minutes longer and even more painful. I couldn’t believe it. I was knocked out. And then we just went in and made some trims. But it’s more or less what you see now, which was so exciting. I know that he is extraordinarily proud of it as am I because I feel it’s the apex of what I’ve been trying to get through and trying to convey throughout all these dinner scenes in my films. 

The shabbat scene really forces you to confront multiple perspectives at once, which also feels important to the moment we are living in; how to maintain empathy for all of these characters simultaneously. 

Absolutely. And one of the facets of Judaism that I kept learning and relearning throughout the process of making this movie whenever I had questions for our Jewish consultant about certain rituals is that there is always constant questioning. Because there are no answers. It’s like, “These people do it this way. And these people do it this way.” It’s Talmudic scholarship. You put that into the filmmaking itself where you’re questioning all things at all times. And if you have characters questioning all things at all times, then maybe it can lead to a sense of empathy. And maybe we can understand other people through constant questioning and not just accepting any given viewpoint as the point to end things on at that given moment. 

We’re too reactive at this point in time as people. All we do is react. You go online, and all you do is react. And I think it’s interesting to see several people react to a certain confession or the profession of a certain person at this dinner table. And how it shifts over the course of time, and what we are to make of that. 

After what happened in October in Israel and after Israel’s military response, social media has exploded into this place of extreme positions on either side of the war in Gaza and the larger historical and political context. Social media feeds are full of propagandistic rhetoric that’s divisive, even among friends. One of the things that polarisation does is erode our ability to empathise with multiple people and multiple positions, to see different sides of questions, and to, as you mentioned earlier, keep questioning phenomena. So, it’s helpful beyond the artistry of the film to see an example of what it looks like to withstand this multiplicity. What does it look like to debate? What does it look like to disagree? What does it look like to stay in a circle?

Yes. I think that all circles are broken. I think the idea that the circle will remain unbroken is just proven a lie. Every time I go on the Internet, I find that I get disappointed in humanity and have to find a way to restore my faith in or sense of humanity outside of the Internet. I think it has destroyed our brains and perverted our brains to a new form of destruction.

Which has been exaggerated by the pandemic as well because we were all isolated in that reality.

I also find the idea that Putin was so scared of getting Covid that he was just in his own head the whole time, alone, and then you look at what that leads to. And you’re like, “Okay, this is what he came up with.”

I agree. The recent violence in the world on the heels of the global experience of the pandemic seems utterly related. Even if this context was not the point of departure for Between the Temples, there’s definitely a way that the film can do some interesting work today. You’ve got different generations, you’ve got different opinions, you’ve got different forms of engagement with religion and with community, and all these layered dynamics playing out. And in general, the question of how we as humans deal with the tragedies of our own lives? I found this root idea in your film very moving: that the man who has lost his wife at a fairly young age might have more in common with an older woman who has just lost her husband than he would with a younger, attractive woman who seemingly ticks all the typical boxes of an ideal mate.

It’s also the idea that the two of them just get along. You can call it whatever kind of connection you want to call it. When you see the two characters, you don’t necessarily say, “That’s a romance.” But maybe there are some romantic tendencies there. It’s more of a, this word is overused, but a “spiritual” connection between the two. And maybe that’s more important than the stuff that’s going on at the temple for either of them. And that’s what’s more meaningful. That these two actually find something in each other. What’s forgotten these days is that people have a hard time relating to each other in this natural way, where they get genuine enjoyment and excitement from seeing another person. Not for social-climbing use and whatnot. As I go into the world and witness those around me, it’s harder. It’s like an illness I don’t know how to diagnose. There’s something in the human spirit that needs another human spirit to help show us who we are. “I’ll be your mirror.” That’s why that song is so moving. Lou Reed was what, 18, when he wrote that? I mean, it’s this fundamental human need that we seek out other people. Because if we’re alone, we don’t know who we are.

One of the things I’ve always noted about you and your work is not just the respect you have for your characters along a continuum of age and generation, but also that a lot of the filmmakers you’re most influenced by are older as well. What were those films and filmmakers that drove you to be a filmmaker?

Jewish comedy was big for me, and that informs so much of what my brain is. From Albert Brooks to Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Michael Roemer. Even now, just discovering The Plot Against Harry (1989), which is such an incredible film and deserves a much wider audience than it currently has.

But for this film in particular, one of the driving factors was Elaine May and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and how you can have comedy, discomfort, and your feelings about Jeannie Berlin’s character shifting from laughing at her to feeling total sympathy/empathy with this character who’s being left by this jerk, who’s in this existential crisis, where he’s going through the same thing again and again that he experienced in his first marriage. The way that scenes unfold in her movies – that movie is hilarious and heart-breaking. It’s everything you’d want a movie to be, and it’s so lacking in what I see in contemporary cinema that I couldn’t even put it on the same shelf if I were to get that DVD and line it up against what’s coming out now. 

The movies that most changed my brain – one of them is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and there are elements of that that fed into my film. When Chris and I were writing it, we would rewatch that movie. That movie was one of the main reasons I wanted to start directing. And there’s Buñuel with his sense of humour. I found myself laughing more than I laughed at what was on TV when I watched and revisited some of his later films. Then I watched basically everything he made and was blown away by how something like The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) was a much more brilliant idea than anything I had seen in high-concept American movies in the theatre. And no one had heard of it. I was like, there’s some discrepancy here, some reason why our brains are not connecting to who we are as humans in the same fashion anymore.

You mentioned earlier a wish to get away from a certain kind of aesthetic that’s being driven by streamers. What is good cinematic work today? 

I love Maren Ade’s movies. I find that she is able to connect to people and find humour. And with Miguel Gomes, I find the same. Tabu is one of my favourite movies. It’s one of the most heart-breaking love stories I’ve seen. And it’s also funny. Formally it’s incredible in those two halves. So you do have filmmakers like that. But I don’t relate to movies coming out now. 

I can’t get through a Christopher Nolan movie. I don’t understand why people think it’s intelligent. Is there something I’m fundamentally not seeing here that I should be? It disturbs me. Whereas I can go to a Spielberg movie and very much enjoy anything that he puts out and see the artistry. With Nolan, I’m just like, it doesn’t feel like it has a human touch or a human heart. I don’t know. It’s baffling to me. 

Sony Pictures Classics is preparing Between the Temples for a significant fall theatrical release. Thinking back on the pandemic, there was a period of all these filmmakers releasing their work into the digital void. With distributors considering whether to hold films or go ahead and release them on VOD. One of the results of that time is the crisis for movie theatres and a kind of questioning of what the movie theatre is and the conscious re-articulation of why it is good to come together in a communal space to watch films versus binge-watching “content” alone on our streamers. 

Sony Pictures Classics is committed to theatrical, and one of the things they said, which is heartening, is that comedy plays well to people together in a space. People can enjoy films together as they can enjoy a meal together and maybe feel other things as well. 

Hopefully Between the Temples will reach a much wider audience of people who don’t know yet know your other films. I’m curious about where you want to go next now that you’ve done this kind of movie.

I want to make more comedies. I think comedies are a way of tricking people into watching character studies. You can Trojan horse ideas. And Mike Leigh has been doing that forever. He tricks people into actually caring about these characters through his characters being very funny. It’s actually enjoyable to sit through. In comedy you’re ticking off multiple boxes at the same time. It’s not only a pleasure to watch. It’s a way of actually making good movies instead. In certain genres it’s very hard to find good characters and to do good character studies because of the restrictions of the genre. Whereas in comedy it’s actually easy and appealing, and actors are drawn to it, so it’s a way to make the kinds of movies that I can stand behind and want to make on a bigger scale.

Endnotes

  1. For more background on this, see: Larissa Kögl, “Politiker kritisieren antiisraelische Äußerungen auf Berlinale,” Zeit Online (25 February 2024) Die Zeit, accessed 9 May 2024; Anna-Lena Schlitt, “Claudia Roth kündigt Untersuchung von Berlinale-Vorfall an” in Zeit Online (26 Feburary 2024), accessed 9 May 2024; and Hannah Pilarczyk, “Der Abend und die Empörung darüber passen nicht zusammen,” Der Spiegel (26 February 2024), accessed 9 May 2024.
  2. See: Carlo Chatrian, “Personal Statement of the Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian,” Berlinale (2 September 2023), accessed 9 May 2024; Elsa Keslassy, Naman Ramachandran, “Martin Scorsese, Radu Jude, Joanna Hogg among 400+ Signatories of Open Letter Urging for Prolongation of Carlo Chatrian’s Berlinale Leadership,” Variety (6 September 2024), accessed 9 May 2024; and Tim Caspar Boehme “Roth verteidigt Berlinale-Kurs” taz (16 September 2023), accessed 9 May 2024.
  3. André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism,” in What Is Cinema? Vol. 2, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 22-25.
  4. Her performances in films such as The Princess Bride (1987), Scrooged (1988), and Addams Family Values (1993) are just some examples a Gen-Xer or an early millennial may have seen growing up. Kane’s omnipresence in the U.S. media landscape at the time, despite her tendency to appear in smaller roles as a character actress, can also be attributed to the way in which theatrical releases, cable television, rerun TV shows, network television, and home entertainment formed a multilayered film and television culture at the time. For more on this media landscape, see Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

About The Author

Brigitta Wagner is a film historian and filmmaker. She is the author of Berlin Replayed: Cinema and Urban Nostalgia in the Postwall Era and the director of Rosehill.

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