Israel's Founding and Hollywood's Blacklist Featured at the 7th Annual Jewish Festival
In the seventh consecutive collaboration between The Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, a total of 16 fiction features and 9 documentaries on Jewish themes were screened in New York City (January 11-22), with works from Austria, Belarussia, Bosnia, Canada, France, Israel, Norway, Russia and the the U.S. Featured were three classic works from the silent film era (The Golem, Germany, 1927; Simon Judit [Judith Simon], Hungary, 1916; and Ukriovana [The Cross], Czechoslovakia, 1921). The Jewish Festival coincided with the 50th anniversaries for the founding of the State of Israel and the beginning of the Blacklist in Hollywood, both of these events reflected in film themes and the festival's programming.
There were five Hollywood fiction works by Jewish writers/directors prominent in the Blacklist era: None Shall Escape, by screenwriter Lester Cole; The Master Race, written and directed by Herbert Biberman; I Can Get It For You Wholesale, written by Abraham Polonsky; The House I Live In, written by Albert Maltz; and The Boy With Green Hair, directed by Joseph Losey. Other fiction works included Soleil by Roger Hanin (France, 1997); La Vérité Si Je Mens!/Would I Lie To You? by Thomas Gilou (France, 1997); Michael Haneke's The Castle (Austria, 1997); From Hell to Hell (Germany/Belarussia, 1996), by Dmitri Astrakhan; Sterne /Stars (German Democratic Republic/Bulgaria, 1959), directed by the late Konrad Wolf; and Mendel (Norway, 1997), by Alexander Rosier.
Part documentary, part feature, Rothschild's Violin (France, 1996, 98 mins.), directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky, is both a one act shtetl opera by Benjamin Fleischmann, a Jewish student of Dmitri Shostakovich, and also a fascinating portrait of the great Russian composer, who was continually harangued and threatened by Communist bureaucrats to purge his work of Jewish influence and sympathies. Fleischmann was killed in action during WW II; Shostakovich completed the one act opera but was not allowed to stage it.
Of the documentaries screened during the Jewish festival, two have already been covered in these pages: East of War, by Ruth Beckermann, was discussed in ID's report on the Berlin festival (June 1997); and Ron Havilio's six-hour Fragments Jerusalem, the grand-prize winner at the Yamagata festival, was treated in the January/February 1998 issue.
Odessa Steps (U.S., 1997, 18 min.) does not concern Eisenstein's famous staircase but is about dancing, as Jewish families from the Ukraine and elsewhere—now settled in San Francisco—send their children to dancing school as part of their acculturation for success in their new land. David L. Mehlman directed this charming variation on exile and assimilation, of eighteen minuets... er, minutes.
The acculturation process is also considered in Farewell (Russia, 1992, 27 min.), by Arkadiy Yakhnis. Here, we travel with 90-year-old Jankel, bidding farewell to his shtetl in Bessarabia, to settle in Israel, so radically different. It's a film of ending and beginning, creating a world of haunting loss, unsurpassed faith and human dignity.
Greta, by Haris Pasovic (Bosnia, 1997, 85 min.) is a portrait of a remarkable woman, Greta Ferusic, who returned to her home in Sarajevo after slave labor in Birkenau/Auschwicz. Determined to start anew, she studied architecture in Paris. At Sarajevo University, she became the first female dean of the department. She is today a prominent cultural figure in Bosnia, also renowned for her humanitarian work. She keeps busy, happy with a son and grandchild. But memories linger: of the five-century-old Jewish community in Sarajevo when the Nazis began deportations; of their trucks and trains; of farewell to her mother, who turned left to the gas chamber, while Greta at age eighteen veered right, and to eventual freedom. She alone of a large family survived. For this film she re-visits the camp, the parade-grounds, the barracks, the crematoria; there is silence, no voice-over, no music. In Bosnia, Greta walks erect-clear brown eyes, steady gaze, she speaks calmly, from a strong, detailed memory. Of the Bosnia/Croatia/Serbia maelstrom, the horror is that the enemies were formerly Greta's neighbors, her former students. She declined evacuation, although at her age she suffered privation, no electricity, heating, food. In the current (temporary?) peace, she now can walk about openly. Graveyards everywhere, stacks of wooden markers with names of the newly slain, their birthdates, nineteen or twenty years old. Ten thousand Sarajevans died here. She passes the once-famous National Library, a huge stone building, heavily shelled and now a burned-out shell, all its historical documentation of centuries destroyed. During this truce, this cease-fire, amid the rains of Sarajevo, Greta is left to contemplate her life and the waves of ethnic cleansing and barbarism that she has survived.
Chants of Sand and Stars by Nicolas Klotz (France, 1997, 90 min.) is a fascinating three-continent musical tour of Jewish music, both old and new, solos and groups, sophisticated and... well , less so. Some infectious music needs only a singer on an Israeli sand dune, with someone nearby beating rhythmically on a box or pot. But there are also large groups with ancient repertoire. Klezmer music? Of course, with famed clarinetist Giora Feidman. And the a capella chants of Hazan Jacoob b'Chiri . Of the centuries-old Jewish minorities in Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco and Azerbaijan, many have been compelled to get out, go to Israel, go anywhere, but go. But a few Jews remained somehow, with their music. Cultural ethnographers, take note.
It was twenty years ago that a New York producer of children's documentary programming, Ira Wohl, won the Academy Award® with his Best Boy. The title character was Wohl's mentally retarded cousin, Philly, then fifty years old, who lived with his aged parents in New York. Wohl's purpose was modest: make a family portrait that might inspire Philly and his parents to explore alternative housing for him, possibly in a secure guest-home. Best Boy took four years to complete, and then took off in all directions: festival awards at Cannes and elsewhere, worldwide broadcast, a successful theatrical run—today the film is still busy in educational, institutional and home video markets. Twenty years pass, Philly's parents are dead , he is in a guest home, and Wohl begins to explore a sequel. He recruits the same cameraman/soundman team, Tom McDonough and Peter Miller, and the result is Best Man. The center of this second film is Philly's bar mitzvath, arranged with a Conservative synagogue, in a ceremony that symbolically authenticates Philly as fully a man, aged seventy, of human worth. Prior to the ceremony, Philly had instruction in Jewish heritage. Ira Wohl's background as a psycho therapist in Los Angeles is directly relevant to his two films, which critics praise for their warmth, restraint and psychological depth. Best Man was financed in part by Channel Four in Britain and by Arte, the French/German TV Network. Cinemax will televise the film this year. Meanwhile, Wohl is preparing two new documentaries-one on heroin; the second on the last Orthodox Jewish community in the state of Mississippi, tentatively entitled Keeping the Faith.
In May 1945, the war in Europe was ending: soldiers of the Jewish Brigade—fresh from two months of combat with Germans on the Senio River in northern Italy, having suffered heavy losses—were beginning to rescue Jewish survivors and transport them, illegally, into special Displaced Persons camps under Jewish control, for their own protective custody, as anti-Semitism remained a pervasive threat throughout Europe. These and other hitherto unknown facts about the wartime role of the Jewish Brigade are documented by In Our Own Hands, from Chuck Olin (U.S., 1998, 90 min.). The film is a major new contribution to the documentation of the war.
But that is only part of the film's value, as the Brigade became the nucleus of the Israeli Army-to-be , e.g., 36 soldiers of the Brigade later became generals in the Israeli Army. Part of the British Army, the Brigade had been formed by volunteers from British Palestine and elsewhere. The British, however, were wary of putting guns in the hands of the Jewish Brigade. Determined to protect British hegemony in the Near East, the Brits didn't want to antagonize Arab sensibilities in Egypt and adjacent lands, by seemingly promoting Jewish ambitions for a nation in the Holy Land . Prime Minister Winston Churchill, however, approved the arming and engagement in combat of the Jewish Brigade, by then late in the war.
"After the Holocaust, and after the fact that so many million Jews went to their deaths without fighting, I think this is the most important facet of the Jewish Brigade: we broke a taboo. We proved to the world that we Jews can fight. We proved to ourselves that we can fight." Thus the spirit of the Jewish Brigade, expressed by one of its soldiers, Johanan Peltz, the first to take German prisoners at the Senio River.
Immediately after the war, some Brigade soldiers fanned out across Europe, seeking to find surviving family-members and to lead survivors to the special DP camps in southern Europe. Also, some small Brigade units became execution squads, tracking down Nazi officers and collaborators in hiding, and killing scores. With tacit approval from David Ben-Gurion head of the Jewish Agency, which had its own parallel Haganah military force—Brigade members began liberating guns and ammo from Allied military depots in Europe, for smuggling to Palestine. The Brigade forged documents, stole trucks, altered requisitions, bribed border guards and brought food and clothing for Holocaust survivors in the Jewish DP camps; these stateless persons were being prepared for the next stage of liberation—the clandestine cross-Mediterranean voyage to Palestine. (Some of us will remember Otto Preminger's Exodus, based on Leon Uris's novel; and Moriah Films' The Long Voyage Home, winner of this year's Best Feature Documentary Oscar®.)
In Our Own Hands traces the epic historical change that altered the map and the balance of power in the Mideast, spawning the new nation of Israel—from the death camps to the United Nations.
An "ism" after a word is a signal for caution: proceed with care, ideology at work, as in capitalism, socialism, you name it. Put an "ism" after Hollywood and you have the title of an extra ordinary new film that doubtlessly will become a classic in cinema scholarship. Hollywoodism (Canada, 1998, 90 min.) is by director/producer/writer Simcha Jacobovici, young but already laden with awards from the Nyon and Monte Carlo festivals, AMPAS, the Emmy®, the Genie, Cable Ace three times , Gemini four times, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award. Born in Israel, educated at McGill and the University of Toronto, Jacobovici majored in philosophy and international relations, two academic studies rarely found on the resumes of cineastes, except perhaps in France and Japan.
Hollywoodism is based on the best-selling book by cultural historian Neal Gabler—An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. Gabler's most recent book is Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.
The film opens, without titles, with an excerpted scene from a western: an idyllic farm, with a happy frontier family. But then menace is felt, shots are fired by unseen killers, the family is wiped out. Narrator: "These images conceal memories. Beneath Hollywood's stories lies a hidden history of persecution and murder that haunted a small group of men—not American cowboys, but Jewish immigrants. This is the story of the founders of Hollywood, the story and the ideal that became both theirs and ours." Then we see and hear Frank Sinatra, in 1945 b/w, singing "The House I Live In," a song of tolerance and brotherhood, composed by Earl Robinson and written by Albeit Maltz—both men later blacklisted. The images change to b/w newsreel clips of glamorous Hollywood premieres, limousines pulling up to the Pantages Hollywood Theater, searchlights wheeling, crowds surging, celebrities arriving and waving at the camera, blowing kisses to the multitudes. And amidst all this tinsel, the camera singles out the studio founders who will be the focus of Hollywoodism: they 're the moguls, in top hats, several with canes, smiling calmly, pleased that their creations, their studios, are doing well. They are: Louis B. Mayer, Russian-born; Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, all born in Germany; Harry Warner, born in Poland (his six brothers were U.S. born); and Sam Goldwyn, also born in Poland, who never ran a major studio, as did the others, but who was best known and enormously influential. "One can say that the American dream was really born in eastern Europe," states Gabler.
James Hoberman, film critic of New York's Village Voice, narrates as scenes roll of village life in the shtetl, from Fiddler on the Roof and authentic old photos. The area was "a colossal pressure cooker, the equivalent of an Indian Reservation," with mobility only within the Yiddish-speaking areas. These are the memories that accompanied the moguls-to-be as they immigrated to the U.S., bringing with them stories, songs, humor, folk-legends. We see footage of pogroms from old Russian movies, then scenes from American westerns of marauders on horseback attacking small frontier towns, killing everyone, our own American pogroms. There were three paths open to Jews: 1) stay in Russia, but flee into Marxism and identify with progressive Gentiles, work with reformist labor and socialist groups, become educated and militant; 2) join the Zionists and immigrate to Palestine, something few actually did ; or, 3) join the two million who left the shtetls for American tolerance and economic security. Thus the premise for the film Hollywoodism—"Hollywood was a dream, dreamt for Jews, who were fleeing a nightmare."
As described by film scholar Thomas Cripps , the moguls at first worked as clothiers, furriers, glove—merchants, sometimes diamond buyers and sellers, petty merchants, businesses outside the Gentile mainstream. They saw how little movies amused the public in the honkytonk nickelodeons, and yet "people paid before they got the goods." Independent of one another, the six moguls emigrated to California, where they created a new social and work environment—the building of studios and support facilities. These were hands-on moguls determined to protect their fiefdoms: they had total control, supervised every aspect of production and approved every detail of the studio apparatus. Hollywood historian Aljean Harmetz states that there was no American dream—beyond liberty—prior to Hollywood's having invented it. They produced the perfect family, like the Hardys, with the perfect mother, wise and loving, the strong, indomitable father, the clean-cut kids, in a well-scrubbed idyllic smalltown with white picket fences, the kindly postman, green lawns in front of each house. The films were characterized by boundless optimism, with truthful industrious citizens, religious and decent, plus happy endings. While , in Gabler's words, "the shadow America created by East European Jewish immigrants was not the real America, but only their own vision of America," the public promptly embraced this celluloid America as part of The American Dream.
Hollywoodism traces the foundation and development of this dream , that infected the moviegoing public and embedded itself into the ideology. During the early years of Hitler's Germany, Hollywood Jews were reluctant to make anti-Nazi films, that might threaten European sales, stir up trouble. By the late 1930s, only Warner Bros. had made a few anti-Nazi dramas with popular stars. But with Pearl Harbor, Hollywood went all-out on war films, cheered on by Washington.
During 1947-1962, the Blacklist did its work. Newsreels of hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities featured HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas: "We will expose and spotlight subversive elements wherever they exist. That Communists have made such attempts in Hollywood, and with considerable success, is already evident." Hollywoodism argues that HUAC, and Hollywood cowardice, brought down the old studio system; by servile cooperation with HUAC, the old Hollywood undermined itself and soon suffered collapse and fragmentation. Blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polansky: "The President of the United States [then Harry S. Truman] said that anti-Communism was American politics. That scared the shit out of them [the moguls]. Because the last thing they wanted to be called was un-American. Having worked with the idea of becoming Americans for so long, they began to believe that possibly they were." Gabler summarizes: "You have to look at it psychologically, not at these external factors. After all these years of commanding their studios, comes HUAC and other factors, to demonstrate to them that all the hopes they had invested in their assimilation were really empty... After HUAC, the fight went out of these American Jews. They lost their hold on the American studios that they had created. They could not go on pretending that they were moguls."
Although the moguls are gone after their thirty-year reign, Hollywoodism argues that their dream survives, icons endure re: Americanism as defined by Hollywood: the race to survive; the little guy fighting the odds; the various races together to create the ultimate happy ending. We see it today, e.g., in Independence Day, re: alien invaders, the entire human race at stake, the surviving little guys fighting annihilation. Yes , Hollywoodism is still at work. Imagine Kate Smith, that magnificent voice singing, "God Bless America," with chorus, a great shot; Judy and Mickey, fresh-faced teenagers, in loving close-up, the American flag waving behind; a montage of images—Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson, dancing; Jeanette MacDonald singing; Gable and Vivian Leigh kissing; Shane; Dietrich, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor. Finally, Judy summarizes—'There's no place like home." And then, John Wayne as Col. Mickey Marcus from Exodus, raises a glass in toast—"L'Chaim...!"
GORDON HITCHENS is Contributing Editor to International Documentary. He was founding editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a stringer for Variety, he has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant ro numerous film festivals throughout the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.