When Personal And Global History Collide

Common threads in Israel Film Center Festival and annual German series.

06/10/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 
Scene from Nadiv Lapid’s “Policeman,” part of Israel Film Center Festival.  Courtesy of Israel Film Center
Scene from Nadiv Lapid’s “Policeman,” part of Israel Film Center Festival. Courtesy of Israel Film Center

At first glance the second annual Israel Film Center Festival and the newest version of Kino! Festival of New German Films would seem an unlikely pairing of events. Even granting the long and complicated history of Jews and Germans, there have been years in which these two events have had little, if anything, in common. But this year, they not only overlap one another thematically and on the calendar, with both running June 12-19, they even share a film.

“Hanna’s Journey,” directed by Julia von Heinz, focuses its attention on Hanna Eggert (Karoline Schuch), an attractive but utterly self-involved business student who gets herself sent to do good works in Israel as a way of enhancing her resume. She works with mentally disabled adults, becoming intrigued by her good-looking Israeli colleague Itay (Doron Amit), and also regularly visits a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Nussbaum (Lia Koenig), a shrewd old party who turns out to have a strong connection to Hanna’s mother.

Therein lies the real thematic link between these two festivals: the intergenerational tensions spawned by collision of personal and global history, mostly relating to the Shoah. In von Heinz’s hands, the story plays itself out in ways that threaten to become predictable — will Hanna and Itay get together, will she reconcile with her mom — but the director’s approach is subtly muted and she underplays the material’s inherent potential for easy sentimentality. Her characters, locked into a visual scheme in which they are frequently separated by strong vertical graphic elements that break the image into discrete spatial units, refuse to make the easy emotional connections; the result is a film of some charm that moves guardedly from the past awful to the future possible. The presence of “Hanna’s Journey” on both festival schedules is entirely apt.

It wouldn’t have been that great a stretch for the Israel Center to be showing “Anywhere Else,” directed by Ester Amrani. Amrani is an Israeli-born filmmaker based in Berlin, whose feature debut, which is on the Kino! Program, is sort of an inversion of “Hanna’s Journey.” This time the protagonist Noa (Neta Riskin), like Amrani herself, is an Israeli woman studying in Berlin who responds to a series of personal setbacks by running back to her parents’ home. Her German boyfriend (Golo Euler), a musician on the cusp of career success, follows her, which leads to some amusingly awkward moments at the dinner table. He arrives on Yom HaZikaron, and Noa’s dad ingenuously asks him if Germany has a memorial day for “your soldiers.”

Noa’s family is classically dysfunctional. She and her brother apparently live on anti-depressants. She and her sister snipe at one another relentlessly. Her mother (the estimable Hana Laszlo) is meddlesome and her grandmother is dying. As for Noa herself, her relationship is on the rocks, her graduate work is being rejected and her fellowship withdrawn. The film opens with a beautiful, nearly indecipherable image of amber-colored crystals, which Amrani gradually reveals are nothing more than an extreme close-up of frosted glass. It’s a lovely visual metaphor for the complexity and even beauty that underlies the seeming chaos of Noa’s family life.

The Israel Center slate also includes another film about a woman exploring the strange generational dramas wrought in the wake of the Shoah, but “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” by Yael Reuveny is a documentary, and quite an elegant one at that. Reuveny’s maternal grandmother survived the camps, and after the war tried desperately to find her favorite brother, Feivush, who had also disappeared into the inferno of occupied Poland. They almost found one another in the Lodz railroad station, today an abandoned Victorian hulk, but for unknown reasons they missed one another that day. After the war, Feivush, who had been a prisoner in Buchenwald, returned to the town of Schlieben, where the camp had been located, settled down there, married a non-Jewish German woman and raised a family. Living as Peter Schwarz he was a modestly successful businessman who played on the local soccer team and fit into his new life in East Germany with dismaying ease.

Reuveny divides her film into three sections, one for each of the generations since the Shoah. She interviews Peter’s German in-laws, particularly the endlessly affable Helga. (“Call me Aunt Helga,” she insists.) At one point the pair are looking through a family photo album in which some of Helga’s brothers are depicted in German uniforms. Reuveny shudders and explains to Helga, “In my family album we don’t have pictures of the Wehrmacht.” The second generation juxtaposes the filmmaker’s mother, a woman who has heretofore refused for five years to visit her Berlin-based daughter, and Uwe, Peter’s son, who has sought out the Reuvenys seeking to forge a family link across the historical schism. Finally, Reuveny herself meets up with Stefan, Uwe’s son, who is a curator at the Great Synagogue of Berlin and a dedicated Judeophile. He tells his cousin, “I want to live in the center of the world.” She replies, “New York?” and he disarmingly responds, “No, Jerusalem.”

Reuveny is a highly polished filmmaker and “Farewell Herr Schwarz” is a remarkably poised and unsettling film. She anchors the uncertainties of her investigation in the casual realities of quotidian detail. Consequently, “Farewell” is a film that never forgets that although history has its big-picture imperatives, for the overwhelming majority of us its force is felt obliquely.

The Israel Center event closes with another rumination on the generational trails of the Shoah and the difficulties of returning to Europe, whether old or new. Co-directed by Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, “Magic Men” continues the duo’s exploration of uneasy alliances in public events begun in “Strangers” (and approached more obliquely in “The Flood,” a solo effort for Nattiv, and “A Matter of Size,” which Tadmor co-directed with Sharon Maymon, the third writer on “Magic Men”).

Avraham (Makram J. Khoury) is an aging survivor, a Greek Jew who lived through the round-ups in Thessaloniki thanks to a street magician who took him under his wing. He eventually made his way to Israel. Now the regional council is sending him back to Greece for a “twin cities” ceremony, but has assigned his son Yehuda (Zohar Straus), a chasidic rapper-singer, to keep an eye on him. As in their previous works together and apart, the directors use their wry wit to keep the material from being cloying. They also bring a sweeping pictorialism to the Greek seascapes that infuses the film with a certain unexpected grandeur and poignancy.

The great photographer Nan Goldin has long made her art out of the unexpected grandeur and poignancy of a generation of young men and women who tore through the ’70s and ’80s on a tidal wave of intimate violence, superheated sexuality and heroin. Sabine Lidl’s documentary portrait of Goldin, “Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face” (which will be shown twice daily as part of the Kino! Program) is a generous and engaging portrait of the lioness at 60, mourning her constellation of friends decimated by the AIDS epidemic and her difficult relationship with her elderly Jewish parents. Perhaps infused with her father’s memories of pre-WWII Harvard with its Jewish quotas, Goldin says of the subcultures her photos document, “It was never about marginalization. We had our own world and we cared about each other.”

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If you are looking for still more Israeli film — albeit this time with no references to the Shoah or Europe — Nadav Lapid’s startling feature debut “Policeman” is opening for a one-week run on June 13. The film, which played the New York Film Festival three years ago, is a dark and ominous one, with most of its violence happening off-screen but with palpably brutal results.

The film focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein), one of five members of an elite counter-terrorism unit within the police force who are facing possible legal action in the wake of an attack that went horribly wrong. These guys live for one another, and as we see them in the first third of the film, little else. They have wives and even kids but, as becomes quickly clear from Yaron’s conduct with his very pregnant wife, family life exists mainly as an adornment that testifies yet again to their masculinity. Yaron is much more attuned to the needs of Ariel, a colleague who is suffering from a tumor that may be cancerous. When we see him with a friend’s baby, he is hefting the little guy while looking into a mirror, as if he is trying on the image for size.

That shot is echoed in the middle section of the film when Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a would-be radical leftist, briefly watches herself handling a pistol in a mirror in her parents’ sumptuous apartment. The shift from Yaron, his wife and his buddies to Shira and her terrorist wannabes is abrupt and total, until their paths cross in the final movement of the film. It’s an eccentric and gutsy choice, made all the more effective by the fact that — much as Shira’s play-acting for the mirror is an echo of Yaron’s — the two groups are grotesque parodies of one another, two quintets prepared to kill for no apparent reason. 

The Israel Film Center Festival opens Thursday, June 12 and runs through June 19, with screenings at several venues; most take place at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue); for information, go to www.israelfilmcenter.org/festival2014_events. Kino! Festival of New German Film runs June 12-19 at the Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street); for information, go to www.kinofestivalnyc.com. “Policeman” will be showing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center June 13-19 with the director present at the 6:45 showings on Friday and Saturday evenings for information go to www.filmlinc.com.
 

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