Life Is A Cabaret

Understanding the Jewish past, in the form of a German bandleader in Israel and the theatrical world the Nazis destroyed in Berlin.

01/15/2013
Special to the Jewish Week
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The musical thread that began this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival (with films about blues singer Doc Pomus and the iconic song “Hava Nagila,” among others) has persisted quite charmingly into the annual event’s final week.

The visual arts are invoked tellingly, too. But at the heart of all the films under review is the idea of storytelling as a way of redeeming and understanding the past.

Max Raabe is not Jewish. He’s a German singer-bandleader whose elegant and playful band music invokes and evokes the cabarets of the Weimar Republic. Consequently, as he emphasizes repeatedly when interviewed in the documentary film “Max Raabe in Israel,” he is playing a repertoire largely written, introduced and made famous by Jews. The film makes a fascinating companion to “Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene,” a documentary that attempts to recreate the feeling of the period through historical footage and music. Although both films are flawed, they are wonderful aides-memoire to the period, and thoroughly engaging as pure entertainment.

Raabe and his Berlin-based Palast-Orchester have been performing the popular music of the 1920s for almost a quarter-century with great success, but it was only in 2010 that the group finally, almost hesitantly, accepted a booking for a brief Israeli tour. Raabe himself is disarmingly frank: “We are always Germans, playing a very German repertoire ... but with a touch of irony. We’re not sweeping anything under the carpet. We [are keeping] these names alive.”

To perform German songs, even those written by Jews or anti-Fascists, for an Israeli audience is somewhat fraught. And the band members are suitably concerned with how they will be received. But the signs are auspicious even before the plane takes off for Israel. The filmmakers, Julia Willmann and Brigitte Bertele, find another passenger, a 90-year-old German Jew who grew up in Berlin and who is tickled to meet Raabe and the band. Like a good-luck charm, he will turn up at their performances throughout the film, almost giddy with pleasure.

Interestingly, a goodly percentage of the audiences feel the same way; they are forcibly transplanted German Jews or their children and grandchildren, aching to recall a happier time in their native land when they achieved some sort of acceptance. As one of the younger ones tells the film crew, listening to the band “is like talking to my grandfather again.” The film itself is frequently charming and the performances excellent, but there is a certain repetitiveness to it, and the charm begins to wear a bit thin by the end of its 90-minute running time.

Where “Max Raabe in Israel,” like its performers, takes a cool, somewhat detached attitude towards the music, “Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene,” written and directed by Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir, is frenzied, almost hysterical. That, too, is appropriate, because the film is composed entirely of period footage, and it’s not easy to assume a cool, detached tone when confronted with the images of brown-shirted thugs roaming the streets of Berlin. Rousso-Lenoir recounts the dark history of the Berlin cabaret, with its largely Jewish cast of composers, lyricists and performers and staunchly oppositional stance, more or less chronologically. But she plays fast and loose with the sequencing of film clips, bending the material to formal necessities and audience comfort. The narration, read in English by the excellent German actor Ulrich Tukur, is a blend of frantic exhortation and drily ironic witticisms. As such, it is true to the experience of the time, but occasionally rather over-wrought.

The real raison d’être of the film, though, is the celebration of a theatrical and musical world that the Nazis destroyed; it consisted of performers as varied as Lilian Harvey and Sig Arno, Ernst Busch and Marlene Dietrich, Valeska Gert and Lotte Lenya. Rousso-Lenoir throws into the mix the geniuses of Weimar visual arts, Georg Grosz, John Hearfield, Kurt Schwitters and Otto Dix, as well as composers like Friedrich Hollander, Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Weill. Her choice of material relies heavily — and happily — on the unfamiliar, and even if the tone of the film is shrill at times, the footage she has used is its own reward. Hers is a refreshingly different way to retell this story.

Art Spiegelman is best known for the pioneering graphic novel “Maus,” another unusual vehicle for retelling the story of the Shoah. The subject of a sprightly, engaging 45-minute documentary, “The Art of Spiegelman,” directed by Clara Kupferberg and Joëlle Oosterlinck, the artist is an amusingly self-deprecating storyteller who is disarmingly candid about his limitations but deadly serious about his art. New York-raised Jews of a certain age (like this reviewer) will immediately identify with his attraction to Mad Magazine, one of the many tempters that lead him into the precincts of the comic book before it spawned graphic novels. His description of the evolution of “Maus” into “a father and son trying to talk to one another,” rather than just another encounter with the Shoah, is particularly moving.

Rudi Weissenstein’s is a name that probably won’t mean anything to most New York audiences, but he was a superb photographer who documented life in the Yishuv and in the State of Israel. He was the official photographer at the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and his work is striking, frequently beautiful and always imaginative. The Photo House, a gallery/store that preserves and extols his legacy, is at the center of “Life in Stills,” a lovely and lively documentary by Tamar Tal. His work may be at the center of the film, but the beating, implacable heart of the film belongs to his widow, Miriam, and her grandson and business partner Ben. Over the course of the film, they battle local developers and the Tel Aviv city council, playfully duel with one another, and carry the message of Rudi’s work to galleries and museums throughout Europe. The film, like his photos, is a vibrant documentation of the people of Israel, above and beyond any institutional history.

“The Fifth Heaven,” the new family melodrama from Dina Zvi Riklis (“Three Mothers”), clearly aspires to offer a similar paean to its roster of orphans, misfits and outcasts, the inhabitants of an orphanage just outside Tel Aviv in 1944. The 13-year-old Maya (Amit Moshkovitz) is dropped off there at the film’s  outset by her feckless father, who knows the home’s director Markovski (Yehezkel Lazarov) entirely too well. As in Zvi Riklis’ previous films, everyone is a vessel of secrets and a potential vehicle for betrayal. Regrettably, the filmmaker’s approach to this material is either too restrained or too emphatic, and the film is anodyne at best.

The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, runs through Jan. 24. Screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, call (212) 875-5601, or go to either www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.

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