‘Katyn’ And ‘Our Disappeared’:
From Poland to Argentina, into the inferno of history.
Andrzej Wajda is one of those rare filmmakers whose work is almost always about the ways that historical events shatter the lives of his characters. Even at his most hopeful in a film like “Man of Marble,” his magnificent 1977 recreation of the roots of the Solidarity movement, people’s most intimate needs are put aside in the interest of larger sociopolitical struggles Considering the trajectory of Polish history over the past 150 years, it’s probably no surprise that happy endings are few and far between in Wajda’s cinematic universe. To his credit, Wajda continues working at 83 with a new work in this year’s Berlin Film Festival and a New York opening for 2007’s “Katyn.” With that film, he returns once more to the Second World War with its crushing effects on Poles and Jews alike, a subject that has obsessed him since his feature career began with the trilogy of “A Generation,” “Kanal,” and “Ashes and Diamonds” in the mid-1950.
“Katyn” opens with a chaotic scene that sums up the dilemma of the Poles at the outbreak of the war. A group of refugees are crossing a bridge in an effort to escape the oncoming German army; they are met head-on by another group, equally determined to escape the forward rush of the Russians. That, in a nutshell, is the situation facing Poland and one of its most sinister effects is the massacre of Polish military officers by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest. At the center of the film is Anna (Maja Ostaszewska, in a masterful performance that holds the entire film together), the wife of a Polish cavalry captain who is transported by the Russians to the Soviet Union, where he will die. Wajda follows her desperate attempts to find her husband and the gradually diminishing hope that afflicts her and seemingly the whole city of Krakow, where she spends most of the war, trying to evaluate the competing claims of the Nazis and the Russians, each of whom blames the other for the mass murder. The film ends with a massive reconstruction of the massacre of 15,000 officers, professionals and intellectuals by Soviet troops, brilliantly staged by Wajda and eerily lit by Pawel Edelman, whose cinematography is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Like most of Wajda’s films, “Katyn” is a somber, deliberately paced work, one that trembles alternately with remorse and indignation. “Katyn” is not up to his best work, “Man of Marble ” and “Danton,” but it has a cumulative power that is gut-wrenching.
“Katyn,” directed by Andrzej Wajda, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) from Feb. 18-March 3.
Anyone who has read Jacobo Timmerman’s chilling memoir of his imprisonment and torture in ‘70s Argentina knows that anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Communism was a significant part of the agenda of the Southern Cone military dictatorships of the era. Although last year’s documentary portrait of the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman touched on that theme at points, it has been relatively under-examined. Juan Mandelbaum’s “Our Disappeared,” which played earlier this year at the New York Jewish Film Festival and is being screened at the Museum of Modern Art later this month, also touches on the subject obliquely, but the connection is stronger than in most previous films on the repression of the period.
Mandelbaum’s parents came to pre-war Argentina to escape the Nazis. They, and their next-door neighbors the Weisz family, found safe haven in the Buenos Aires suburbs. But as “Our Disappeared” dryly notes, their children did not. When the Argentine military junta came to power in March 1976 they began a reign of terror that included the “disappearance” of 30,000 of their compatriots, including two of the Weisz’s sons and many of Mandelbaum’s friends and schoolmates. Looking at the photo of an ex-girlfriend of his who was among those who were abducted, tortured and killed, he decided to return from exile in the U.S. to find out what happened to her and many others.
“Our Disappeared” shows us his search in a methodical, deliberate manner, low-key in tone, but punctuated by great grief. Following the parallel tracks of the history of the junta and the Terror and his own research into the past, the film is an eloquent, if occasionally sentimental reminder of the cost of “security” purchased at the price of freedom and the rule of law. For those who know this grim history, the film may seem a bit too detailed in its recounting of the bitter chronology of Argentina in the ‘70s, but for most American audiences, whether or Jewish or not, the story is unfamiliar and well worth revisiting. As Mrs. Weisz says, invoking Jewish thought explicitly, “Nos recordamos.” We remember our own.
“Our Disappeared” will be shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Documentary Fortnight, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. at MoMA (11 W. 53rd St.); the film’s director, Juan Mandelbaum will be present.
Getting A Second Chance
When Paul Schrader’s film of Yoram Kaniuk’s post-Holcoaust novel “Adam Resurrected” opened in December, I predicted that it would be overwhelmed by the stampede to laud “The Reader” and “Defiance” for their ostensible profundity and “Valkyrie for its razor-sharp craftsmanship. I take no credit for the accuracy of that prediction — any film that opens at the Quad and has, for all intents and purposes, no real distribution is doomed regardless of its subject matter or competition.
Nor do I take any pleasure in being right because, despite the film’s quick exit from local theaters, “Adam Resurrected” has stayed with me since I saw it last year, and that seldom happens. As I noted in writing about the film back then, “Adam” is a flawed film whose last movement unravels messily in a painful reminder of the well-meaning but foolish “anti-establishment” films of the late 1960s. But Schrader brings an intelligence, a wit and a gravitas to the material that raises the movie above much of what passes for serious filmmaking about the Shoah these days. In its dark humor and sardonic appreciation for the urge to go on living, it offers a singular take on the Survivor.
Imagine my delight, then, at learning that audiences who are willing to seek out “Adam Resurrected” will have at least one more chance to sample it when it plays at the Walter Reade Theatre in early March.
Schrader and screenwriter Noah Stollman made a valiant effort to retain the novel’s exuberantly unmanageable protagonist, Adam Stein, who combines messianic aspirations with self-lacerating guilt in a surprisingly funny stew of anger and wit. The result is an intelligent and honorable film about a difficult subject, the burdens of having survived a cataclysm. Jeff Goldblum plays Stein, once a famous cabaret and circus performer, who endures a uniquely hellish time in the camps as the “pet dog” of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe). But in the early ‘60s, when the film is set, Stein is the prize patient at an institute in the middle of Negev dedicated to rehabilitating Holocaust survivors; he is equal parts shaman, rascal, healer and performance artist, almost literally waltzing through this indulgent “madhouse” with swagger and charm.
Stein, for all his flamboyance, is a direct descendant of other Schrader protagonists like Julian Kay in “American Gigolo,” John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” and Carter Page in “The Walker,” men who are detached from their surroundings, possessed of enough personal style and poise to skate through but, finally, pushed out of their comfort zones by violence and forced to make an emotional commitment of which they thought themselves incapable. Goldblum projects an unusual mixture of extreme intelligence, diffidence and a vulpine sexual hunger.
He’s also a dead-on comic actor who projects a very New York Jewish brand of street smarts, not exactly what Adam Stein would have, but a close enough approximation to carry the film for most of its running time, until Stein himself begins to disintegrate, to the detriment of the film itself. Ironically, when it rights itself, it does so because Schrader and Stollman have stepped away from the nervous craziness of what has come before to reluctantly embrace what seems on first glance to be a surprisingly conventional feel-good ending.
And yet, not quite. Perhaps that is why the film has stayed with me since.
“Adam Resurrected” will be shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) as part of its annual “Film Comment Selects” series, which runs Feb. 20-March 5. The film will be screened at 9 p.m., March 3, and director Paul Schrader will be present.
Feb. 17: Tomer Heymann’s newest documentary, “Black Over White,” focuses on the musician Idan Raichel and his multiculti sound extravaganzas. JCC in Manhattan (76th St. and Amsterdam Ave.), 7:30 p.m.
March 1-2: Non-Stop Israel at the JCC in Manhattan, including a roundtable on the making of “Waltz With Bashir,” “A Touch Away,” an award-winning Israeli telefilm and the highly popular comedy “Noodle.” The next night, they’ll be showing Ronit Elkabetz’s directorial debut, “Shiva.”
March 5-15: Rendezvous with French Cinema, the annual round-up of new French film from the Film Society of Lincoln Center includes two movies of interest to Jewish Week readers, “Paris 36,” Christophe Barratier’s affectionate recollection of the Popular Front years, and Andre Techine’s examination of an apparent anti-Semitic hate crime, “The Girl on the Train.” Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza).
March 5: “People on Sunday,” the 1929 German classic that launched the careers of several important Jewish filmmakers, all of whom would make their mark here in the U.S. after the Nazis’ rise to power. The screenplay is by Billy Wilder, the co-directors are Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, and the assistant cameraman is Fred Zinneman. A charming story of young people in love in the city, the film anticipates Italian neo-realism and French poetic realism. Anthology Film Archives (Second Avenue and Second Street), 7:30 and 9 p.m.
March 19: “Perestroika,” by Slava Tsukerman (“Liquid Sky”), starring Jason Robards as a Russian-Jewish scientist who returns to the “new” Russia to find the old anti-Semitism. The 92nd St. Y’s screening of the film will be presented by the director and co-star F. Murray Abraham, 7 p.m.
April 29: Tel Aviv 100- Yom Ha’Atzmaut film marathon at the JCC in Manhattan, 7:30 p.m.
June 11-25: Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, at the Walter Reade Theatre. Needless to say, the lineup for this annual event is far from set, but the London edition included such promising items as “In the Holy Fire of Revolution,” a look at Garry Kasparov’s challenge to Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial power, and “Look Into My Eyes,” an examination of the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism by Israeli documentarian Naftaly Gliksberg.
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