The Life And Times Of The Jewish Artist

Four NY Jewish Film Festival works explore tensions in the creative life.

01/04/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Alma (Barbara Romaner) and Gustav Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) in scene from “Mahler on the Couch.”
Alma (Barbara Romaner) and Gustav Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) in scene from “Mahler on the Couch.”

The price one pays for being an artist is frequently sizeable. The call to the arts is often rooted in alienation and a sense of difference. To follow that path is to risk ostracism and penury. And other than your fellow artists, who else will understand your choices?

If that sounds a bit like the state of the Jew in a predominately non-Jewish world, it’s not a coincidence. With the first four films in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival (which opens Jan. 12) pondering the fate of Jewish artists, the implications of being a doubly displaced person are inescapable. The quartet, three documentaries and one fact-based fictional narrative, explore many different aspects of the plight of the Jew as artist, but one suspects that each of the films’ protagonists would repeat the advice of Rilke: if you don’t have to be one, do something else.

Sometimes the dangers and obstacles are obvious. Boris Efimov, one of the most popular political cartoonists in 20th-century Russia, faced quite a few of both. In Kevin McNeer’s fascinating documentary on Efimov’s life, “Stalin Thought of You,” Efimov, already over 100 years old, is relentlessly frank about the rigors of Jewish identity in the seemingly perpetually spinning, usually violent political tornado that is Russia, and even more vividly honest about the dangers of being in and out of favor with Joseph Stalin.

Efimov and his brother, journalist Mikhail Koltsov, spent the Revolution and subsequent civil war in Kiev, which changed hands over a dozen times. Efimov asks McNeer a rhetorical question, “I should have become a follower of Petylura or Denikin [the White Russian counter-revolutionary commanders]?” He answers his own query, “It’s so obvious it doesn’t have to be stated.” As a Jew he would have had as good a chance of survival joining the Nazi Party.

But when the brothers came to Moscow in 1922, their position would prove no less precarious. Although Koltsov was important enough to have been among Lenin’s pallbearers, and Efimov’s first published collection of cartoons had an introduction by Leon Trotsky, all futures in Stalin’s Russia were built on a thin sheet of ice in warm weather. Koltsov would be denounced and executed at the end of the 1930s; Efimov survived by an unexplained combination of luck, unobtrusiveness and, one imagines, obsequiousness. “There was nothing I could do [but what] had to be done,” he says. “[Otherwise] I would end up in the same place as my brother.”

Sholem Aleichem faced a different set of obstacles, although Russian anti-Semitism was never far from the minds of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, as any reader of the great Yiddish writer will recall. As recounted in Joseph Dorman’s thoughtful new film “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” the former Sholem Rabinowitch rode a whirligig of business success and failure, literary acclaim and opprobrium. He grew up in comparative comfort, only to see his family plunged into poverty when he was in his early teens. He married into a wealthy family and was a successful speculator, but when the markets went south, they took his money as completely as they did anyone else’s.

None of this was lost on Sholem Aleichem. As he switched from Hebrew to Yiddish and found his subject matter in the shtetls and urban ghettos of the Pale, Odessa and Kiev, he became a deft chronicler of the foolishness of would-be capitalists like himself. As upheavals in Russia led to the dissolution of the shtetlach, he became their eulogizer. But he never sentimentalized the brute realities of Jewish life in the Old World, and one of the best elements of Dorman’s film is his refusal to allow the candy-coated visions of “Fiddler on the Roof” to define the author’s worldview. What makes “Sholem Aleichem” a cut above the run-of-the-mill “great author’s great life” documentary is the film’s attention to the intricate relationship between social reality and the art that depicts it.

For contemporary artists playing Jewish music in 21st-century America, the problems are a little more mundane: paying the rent, finding affordable health insurance and deciding whether to take a day job. One of the more interesting aspects of Erik Greenberg Anjou’s new film “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground” is learning about the everyday drama of keeping a working band together in New York City. The ’Matics are the cream of a very rich klezmer community and they are all personable, likeable folks. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of interpersonal tensions roiling the waters. Anjou, whose previous film, “A Cantor’s Tale,” had the advantage of a single protagonist, here grapples with an entire band and its 24-year-history. The result is never less than amiable, but the film is a bit baggy and shapeless at times.

Percy Adlon’s protagonists are frequently bystanders at the fringes of cultural history or ordinary folk swept up in the torrents of political history. His latest film, co-directed with his son Felix, moves two icons of Central European Jewish history into close proximity with one another. Given that the film’s title is “Mahler on the Couch,” you may surmise that the film’s central characters are Gustav Mahler and his fellow Viennese-by-way-of-Bohemia, Sigmund Freud. Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) has sought out Freud (Karl Markovics) while the latter is en route to a vacation. Mahler’s beloved wife Alma (Barbara Romaner) is having an affair with Walter Gropius and has contrived to let him know about it. Now, the despondent, frazzled composer-conductor must fight through his resistance to open up to the good doctor. The Adlons deliver this comedy-drama with the lightest of touches, creating a world of self-absorbed people whose limited fields of perception are both literal and figurative. The end result is a work of winning wit and warmth, a reaffirmation of the place of love and a portrait of fruitful give-and-take in the creative process and in life itself. n

The New York Jewish Film Festival, now celebrating its 20th year, will run from Jan. 12-27. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, most of the programs will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.), with some showing at the JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.) and the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd St.). For information, go to www.filmlinc.com.

 

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