12 January, 2010

Jewish Themes In European Cinema

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

With the opening this week of the 19th New York Jewish Film Festival, one of the most important showcases of Jewish-themed cinemas in the world, a strong showing by European filmmakers is overwhelmingly evident. Most of the films mentioned here will undoubtedly play at many similar Jewish film festivals around the world (there are hundreds), with some actually making the leap into theaters.

It is often said that everyone in New York, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, is just a little bit Jewish. The Jewish influence in culture, art, politics and in every stratum of society gives all New Yorkers a kind of common bond that no other group quite inspires. If you can recite the lines from a Woody Allen film, if you cannot imagine breakfast without a bagel, if you find yourself uttering the words "oy vey" with a heartfelt sigh, you are Jewish, if you are a Catholic priest, a Hindu taxi driver or a Moslem shopkeeper. So, boychicks, have I got a festival for you.....

The 19th New York Jewish Film Festival, an annual showcase of films presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum that begins this week, is one tasty corned beef sandwich. A mix of dramas, documentaries and films that explore cultural issues, the Festival is among the most popular events presented each winter, almost as nourishing as a bowl of that Jewish penicillin, matzoh ball soup. Aside from its inherent Jewishness, the series is also a prominent showcase of new works from Europe's most dynamic cinema talents.

The series opens with SAVIORS IN THE NIGHT, a German/French co-production by director Ludi Boeken, that offers yet another tale of courage and the vagaries of fate that are inherent to dramas focused on the Holocaust, in particular the role of "good Germans" who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. Based on the memoir of Marga Spiegel, this powerful drama portrays how courageous German farmers in Westphalia risked their lives to hide a Jewish family.

The Closing Night Film is also from a leading European talent. WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND, a German/Polish/Belgian co-production is the latest film from director Marleen Gorris. The film tells the story of Jewish poet and professor Evgenia Ginzburg, who lived a privileged life in Stalinist Russia—until faced with trumped-up charges of conspiracy. Stripped of her Communist Party membership and teaching post, Ginzburg served a ten-year sentence in a Siberian gulag, surviving through the kindness of her fellow inmates and the power of poetry. Based on Ginzburg’s memoirs, this epic from Oscar-winner Marleen Gorris (ANTONIA'S LINE) features stunning performances by Emily Watson (BREAKING THE WAVES) and Ulrich Tukur (THE LIVES OF OTHERS).

Other European film highlights in the series include: BERLIN ’36, a German/UK co-production by Kaspar Heidelbach that tells a dramatic story of friendship during that year’s infamous Olympics; the French documentary EINSATZGRUPPEN: THE DEATH BRIGADES by Michaël Prazan, a 3-hour portrait of the mobile commandos who carried out the murder of 1.5 million Jews, Gypsies, Communists, disabled people, partisans, and Soviet prisoners of war; the Czech documentary FORGOTTEN TRANSPORTS: TO POLAND by Lukás Pribyl about the Czech Jews deported by the Nazis to camps and ghettos in Eastern Poland’s Lublin region; the Romanian drama GRUBER'S JOURNEY by Radu Gabrea, set in Nazi-occupied Romania; Dutch director Frans Weisz' HAPPY END about several generations of a Dutch Jewish family; HUMAN FAILURE by Michael Verhoeven (THE NASTY GIRL), a documentary expose of the expropriation and sale of Jewish assets by the Nazis; THE JAZZ BARONESS, UK director Sarah Rothchild's documentary portrait of her great-aunt who scandalized the famous banking dynasty with her affair with a black jazz musician; the Czech submission for the Oscars, PROTECTOR by Marek Najbrt, set in 1930s Prague; and French director Alain Tasma's terrorism thriller ULTIMATUM, starring French heartthrob Gaspard Ulliel.

The Festival runs through January 28 at the Walter Reade Theater, the flagship of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. For a complete list of films, visit: or

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