2011 Film Festival Reviews

February 2011, March 2011 | 1 Comment »

Review: Anita

“Anita” wins hearts for an unconventional young heroine

By Jessica Hanewinckel

If you’ve ever known someone with Down syndrome, you don’t need to be told how their innocent, ever-loving, peaceful personalities are contagious to those around them. If you haven’t had the pleasure of knowing anyone with condition, acclaimed Argentinian writer-director Marcos Carnevale offers a sweet life lesson in “Anita,” set against the backdrop of the not-so-sweet car bombing outside the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building on July 18, 1994.

Set in the Jewish neighborhood of Once, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 30-year-old Anita Feldman, who has Down syndrome, lives a warm, loving, predictable life with her widowed mother, Dora, in their apartment above the stationary store they run in place of her late father. Anita’s comfortable existence is turned upside down when her mother never returns from an errand at the AMIA. In Dora’s absence from their shop, the bomb is detonated, and, dazed and unsure of what has happened, Anita leaves the shop and wanders through the big city in search of her mother, one of 85 killed in the attack. While Anita’s older brother, Ariel, desperately searches for her and fears she’s died in the attack, she’s surviving any way she can, often when she is welcomed into the homes of strangers and given a meal and a bed.

The role of Anita is played affectingly and sensitively by newcomer Alejandra Manzo, an actress who really does live with Down syndrome. The storyline, however calls for Manzo’s character to be rather stagnant. From beginning to end, Anita is mostly unchanged emotionally. By the end, she is able to comprehend her mother’s death, but it’s clear her response and understanding of the magnitude of what’s happened are muted. Rather, it’s Anita’s unintended charm, honesty and innocence that evolve the people around her and help them understand themselves and their own lives better.

We see this transformation namely in the people who take her in during her days lost in the city and in Ariel, who shirks his brotherly responsibilities in the beginning but redeems himself and shows intent to care for Anita in the end. The film portrays more than a few people who at first see Anita as a nuisance, but their opinions change when they realize her natural loving tendencies bring out the best in them. Perhaps this young Jewish woman is simply trying to impart a little chesed (loving-kindness) onto her small corner of the world.

————————-

Review: An Article of Hope

“An Article of Hope” proves life continues and flourishes, even when we humans perish

By Jessica Hanewinckel

Perhaps he was just being modest, or perhaps he didn’t want to reveal too much too early, but when director Daniel Cohen chose to market “An Article of Hope” simply as the story of an Israeli astronaut and the miniature Torah he brought with him into space, Cohen ensured viewers would be in for quite a pleasant surprise when they viewed the documentary in its entirety.

Yes, “An Article of Hope” weaves the truly remarkable tale of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut in space and one of seven crewmembers to perish in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle expedition. Yes, he carried with him into space a tiny Torah scroll that had previously seen the depths of hell in Bergen Belsen. Yes, this is a Holocaust tale and an Israeli and Jewish story of triumph, but it’s so much more than that.

The film, which seamlessly and meticulously tells the story of Col. Ramon’s life and his most anticipated (and ultimately fatal) voyage, opens in small-town Texas to eyewitness interviews and footage from Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The slow southern drawls and images of small town, U.S.A., are a world away from Ramon and his life story, but the documentary wastes no time in getting there.

Interviews by some of Ramon’s countless friends, family members paint the picture of a handsome and talented, yet humble and selfless individual, “quiet on the ground and a fighter in the air,” as one person recalls. In Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear plant, Ramon, a pilot in the Israeli air force, planned the route the jets would take and flew the No. 8 jet in the second formation — the deadliest position possible.

Ramon was resilient, brave and ambitious. It was in his blood. His parents, (his mother and grandmother survivors of Auschwitz) met on a kibbutz in Israel. It came as little surprise to his colleagues, then, when he was chosen to join a group of six American astronauts on the Columbia’s 28th space expedition.

Using footage (often shot by the crewmembers themselves) and interviews with spouses, the film does an excellent job of covering such a human and personal side of the tragedy, which has received so much coverage elsewhere that’s focused more on the technical aspects of what went wrong. It breaks down walls of sterility and permeates an aura of untouchable, but stark and serious, wonder so often associated with NASA. It shows who Ramon and his fellow crewmembers were as people, with all their silly quirks and life passion.

One moment, we laugh at the goofy antics of Ramon trying to start a campfire during a NASA team-building wilderness expedition, and the next, our hearts sink alongside those in mission control as we see their pained faces visibly register what’s just happened in footage from the day of the disaster.

An important aspect of the film is Ramon’s representation of Israel and of the Jewish people, which he emphasizes in an interview prior to launch. He carries several Judaica pieces with him into space, of most symbolic significance being a small Torah scroll, no taller than six inches, given to him by Holocaust survivor Joachim Joseph. Joseph was a boy in Bergen Belsen when a rabbi, who knew he had a lesser chance of survival, passed the scroll along to Joseph and told him that if he survived, he should share his story with the world. The rabbi performed a secret bar mitzvah ceremony for Joseph, who had just turned 13, then slipped the Torah to him. The rabbi didn’t survive, but Joseph did, and through the space expedition, so now too would the story of the tiny Torah and its remarkable journey from “the depths of hell to the heights of space.”

“I think this [Torah] represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive anything,” Ramon says from space, as he tells the Torah’s story and sends greetings in Hebrew to his fellow Israelis.

As the film puts it, Ramon shouldn’t have even been alive (because of the Holocaust), but he came to work on a mission that represented the future. His story is about the continuation of life and the desire for a better day, and the film is a story of unity between two countries and an uplifting message of hope for humanity and a loving tribute to Ilan Ramon’s bittersweet final mission into the heavens.

———————

Review: Berlin 36

“Berlin 36” is sports movie with a kick

By Michael Fox

The late Avery Brundage, the autocratic president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952-72, believed sport and politics should be kept separate.

At least that was one argument supporters used to defend his decision to resume the 1972 Munich Olympic Games after a one-day hiatus, following the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. Many Jews, however, viewed Brundage’s verdict as worse than insensitive.

Although unmentioned at the time, Brundage had some history with Jewish athletes. As the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, Brundage had opposed a proposed American boycott of the Berlin Games, although everyone was aware of Adolf Hitler’s monstrous racial policies and his intent to use the Olympics to score propaganda points.

There’s more to the story, and it emerges in the opening night film of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the historically based and glossily enthralling German drama “Berlin 36,” in which Brundage is a peripheral but important character.

The movie’s focus is German-Jewish high-jumper Gretel Bergmann, a strong-willed 20-year-old who, in another era, would have been feted and adored. But the introduction of anti-Jewish laws by the Nazi regime ruined her career prospects, and her father sent her to England.

As the film opens in 1934, Gretel has just won the British high jump championship, and her father — under pressure from the Nazis — has come to bring her back to Germany to prepare for the 1936 Olympic Games.

Gretel (played by Karolie Herfurtht) is unapologetically ambitious and competitive, but she sees this “opportunity” for what it is. She refuses to participate in a scheme to garner glory for Germany, until the head of the Jewish sports club points out that a Jewish athlete winning a gold medal would put the lie to Hitler’s pro-Aryan ranting.

What Gretel may or may not know is that the U.S. had decided to boycott the Games if Germany’s Jewish athletes weren’t allowed to compete. USOC president Brundage, in his meetings with the Germans, lets his pro-Nazi sympathies be known and ultimately is portrayed as a collaborator in an elaborate charade.

The smooth, slippery Brundage (played by John Keogh) does have one good moment, though. Informed in a meeting with German officials that Gretel was forbidden entry to a sports club, he acknowledges ironically to an underling that the Jewess wouldn’t be allowed into his club in the States.

“Berlin 36” devotes most of its attention, though, to the difficulty of Gretel’s life in training camp. She’s a pariah, hazed by the high jumpers she’s competing against and made to feel invisible by the other athletes.

The wild card in all this is jumper Marie Ketteler, an unusually masculine farm girl with strength and ability but little technique. She’s the Nazis’ preference to make the team and Gretel’s most imposing rival. Nonetheless, the outcasts gradually bond, even before Gretel learns Marie’s secret (which we’ve already figured out).

From an identification standpoint, Gretel is a welcome change from the passive and powerless Jews of countless Holocaust movies. Unfortunately, even this supremely talented, self-aware and self-confident young woman has little room to maneuver against the Nazis.

Consequently, at crucial junctures as the clock ticks down to the Olympic Games, Gretel is more of an observer than a protagonist. It’s inevitable, but it does diminish the film’s power.

“Berlin 36” is a crisp, well-made film that’s smart enough to play with the viewer’s natural inclination to instantly judge every character as a hero or villain.

Its major contribution, though, is reminding us that the Berlin Olympics should be remembered for more than Jesse Owens. Even if he did win four gold medals (three individual and one team) in one day.

————-

SECTION/COLUMN: Cover story

Review: Canvasman: The Robbie Ellis Story

Artful double life keeps sexagenarian young

By Michael Fox

There’s a double meaning to the title of “Canvasman: The Robbie Ellis Story,” though you can’t know that at the outset.

You might guess, however, from the picture of Ellis in wrestling togs that accompanies this review, that he’s in show business. And, perhaps, that he’s got a wild side — or as wild as a 65-year-old grandfather can be.

Director Gary Robinov sets us up for a funhouse ride with a burst of heavy metal under the opening credits, followed by a tasty slice of acoustic blues. But instead of continuing in a raucous, irreverent vein, he downshifts immediately to a polite, prosaic and unwaveringly affectionate character study.

The one-hour documentary espouses the far-from-radical, feel-good sentiment that you’re only as old as you feel, in tandem with recurring encouragement to pursue one’s passion. These are positive philosophies, to be sure, but hardly earthshaking news. So it wouldn’t have hurt to express them (even on a modest budget) with more dash, flash and panache.

Robbie Ellis, known to his family, friends and straight-world business associates in Portland, Maine, as Rob Elowitch, has led an unusually interesting life. Double life, to be precise.

The scion of an athletic father, Elowitch nonetheless preferred plays and musicals to sports. But when he took professional wrestling lessons on a whim in his early 20s, he was hooked. It may sound far-fetched until you consider that pro wrestling combines play-acting with physical endeavor.

Elowitch kept his wrestling secret from his wife, Annette, until they’d been married a year. When they opened Barridoff Art Galleries, he adopted a policy of never performing in Portland — and employing the ring name of Robbie Ellis — out of concern that his “lowbrow” hobby would hurt his credibility with their cultured clients.

By the early ‘80s, the Elowitches were major players in the Maine art scene. Unexpectedly, when Sports Illustrated “outed” Elowitch as a pro wrestler in the 1980s, the article didn’t hurt the business. To the contrary, it boosted it.

The second meaning of “Canvasman,” you’ve now deduced, stems from the paintings that comprise the bulk of the family business. (Some years ago Rob and Annette converted Barridoff into an auction house that holds one major annual event.) The first, of course, refers to the floor of the wrestling ring.

The absence of any stigma enabled Ellis to wrestle openly, even in Portland. A workout fiend, Ellis has always kept himself in great shape and continues to perform regularly.

Ellis is a raspy-voiced fellow with a ready smile and a hint of Danny Kaye’s elfin gleam. Although the film doesn’t explore it, he can be seen as combining two distinct traditions favored by Jews: vaudeville and bodybuilding (a more recent predilection of the tribe, admittedly).

While part of the admitted allure of “Canvasman” is the novelty factor of watching the 60-something Ellis giving and receiving (fake) punishment in the ring, the film offers the deeper pleasure of getting to know someone who epitomizes the phrase “good sport.”

At the same time, one wishes the filmmaker — who clearly admires and respects his subject — had occasionally pushed Ellis out of his comfort zone. Ellis recounts his story with enthusiasm and energy, but with an unavoidable lack of drama. (Both he and Annette broach the specter of his retirement, which isn’t on the horizon yet is inevitable, but it’s more abstract than immediate.)

“Canvasman” is a nice film that reminds us that, like pro wrestling, some documentaries can benefit from a shmear of show business.

————–

Review: In Search of Memory: The Neoroscientist Eric Kandel

By Alanna Berman

It’s not often that you get to spend quality time with a Nobel Prize winner, but in Petra Seeger’s documentary about the life and work of neuroscientist Eric Kandel, we are invited to do just that.

Kandel, who won the 2000 prize in physiology or medicine for his research of memory (specifically how the mind sorts and stores both long- and short-term memory) is as engaging and charismatic as his family, who join him in the documentary on a trip to Vienna, Austria, to trace his childhood roots and the reason for his life’s work.

A Viennese Jew by birth, Kandel was forced to immigrate to the U.S. at age 9, and his memory of living in Nazi-occupied Vienna leads to a personal journey. Kandel demonstrates that what we remember is not always what was, and that some memories can be so powerful that we feel something long after the event has occurred.

Having been forced out of his home by Nazis during the onset of World War II, Kandel’s life work is undercut by this one defining moment in his life.

“I wanted to understand how cultivated, intelligent people could listen to Heiden, Mozart and Beethoven one day,” he says, “and kill Jews the next.”

More concerned with exploration than with comprehensiveness or conclusions, the film follows Kandel through the streets of Vienna as he seeks out his father’s toy shop and the apartment he so fondly remembers; through Brooklyn, where he searches for similar memories of his youth there; and as he conducts research in his laboratory at Columbia University, where he works with mice and snails to determine how memories are formed and why we remember what we do.

We are introduced to the students and lab staff at Kandel’s research facilities, whom he has inspired and coached to lend their own contributions to the science of the mind. One student even calls him “the rock star of neuroscience.”

Where no photo archives were available, Seeger, a German filmmaker, has created reenactments of moments from Kandel’s past. The emotion is a bit over-exaggerated at times, but they’re nonetheless done with real sincerity to show Kandel’s childhood memories.

To be sure, the appeal of “In Search of Memory” lies in its subject. A smallish man in his 80s, Kandel appears larger than life in the film. Never without his signature bow tie, Kandel laughs often and laughs big, explaining a rather complex subject in an easily accessible manner.

The film is as engrossing as you would expect with such a spectacular subject and a must-see for anyone interested in the science of memory.

——————–

Review: Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment

Kibbutz documentary plows fertile past, uncertain future

By Michael Fox

As an international symbol of Zionist idealism and a crucial early component of Israeli nation-building, the kibbutz naturally evokes feelings of romance and nostalgia.

Toby Perl Frielich’s unremittingly thought-provoking documentary, “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment,” enthusiastically embraces that sentiment. For maybe 10 minutes. The rest of the time, the film delivers a pragmatic, unflinching assessment of a venerable Israeli institution.

It is precisely this willingness to pierce illusions and face up to hard truths that makes “Inventing Our Life” so valuable. At the same time, it’s occasionally painful to watch for anyone who loves Israel — and misses the days when it wasn’t a materialistic Western society like any other.

With the exception of a couple of professors and political observers, all of the interviewees are first, second or third-generation kibbutzniks. They may not currently live on a kibbutz, however, a few having left for personal or economic reasons.

“Inventing Our Life” gains immeasurably from focusing on individuals with direct experience of kibbutz life. It plays as a kind of first-person social history, but with uncommon urgency and emotion. Even when they’re talking about the past, the subjects convey a sense of investment and ownership that is immediate and compelling.

In other words, there is a whole lot more at stake here than memories.

The first kibbutz, Deganya, was founded in 1910 by 10 Eastern European immigrants.

Communal living attracted Jews committed to the ideals of socialism yet weary of anti-Semitism in their own country. In Palestine, they could create something that was their own, and which no one could take away.

This agrarian, utopian movement grew steadily, aided in part by financial aid from American Jews. In 1948, the kibbutzim essentially became the front line in the War of Independence. In the years after World War II, the influx of Holocaust survivors boosted the kibbutz population significantly. The Six-Day War of 1967 provided another bump, inspiring a number of American Jews to make aliyah, most of whom didn’t come to live in the shadow of Shalom Tower.

All of these individuals had one thing in common: A powerful urge to invent their own life.

Surprisingly, at the peak of the movement, only five percent of the Israeli population lived on a kibbutz. But their influence on Israeli society was disproportionately high, in part because the kibbutzim led the way in infrastructure, security, literature and several other areas.

The most controversial aspect of kibbutz life — and which is at the heart of Ran Tal’s first-rate 2007 documentary, “Children of the Sun” — was the raising of the children collectively, by nannies. “Inventing Our Life” provides testimony from adults who couldn’t imagine having had a happier childhood, along with some who weren’t well served by growing up among a band of kids.

As young people increasingly left to pursue more exciting lives in the cities and/or bring up their children in a non-collective fashion, the kibbutzim were compelled to adapt.

They were further buffeted by shifting economic realities, notably the devaluation of the shekel in the late ‘80s.

“Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment” takes us up to the present, exploring such compromises and innovations as the urban kibbutz. Yet one comes away from the film with a strong sense that the dream is over — the dream of shared ownership and equality for all — and that Israel has lost part of its soul in the bargain.

As a side note, there’s no mention in the film of the many non-Jewish volunteers from Australia, Holland, the U.K. and New Zealand who were attracted to kibbutzim in the 1970s, when Israel was still seen as an underdog by young people around the world.

————–

Review: La Rafle

“Le Rafle” revisits pain of French collaboration

By Michael Fox

For decades after the war, French filmmakers avoided the subject of their country’s collaboration during the Nazi Occupation. The late Louis Malle helped break the silence with his chilling teenage-fascist saga “Lacombe Lucien” (1974) and movingly autobiographical “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (1987).

The latter film famously centered on the wartime boarding-school friendship between a Jewish boy and a Catholic boy and was all the more wrenching for its main characters’ innocence and naiveté.

Children are the least culpable and most defenseless of victims, a fact that director Rose Bosch parlays to great emotional effect in her ambitious fact-based drama, “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”). An often-nuanced depiction of compassion and cruelty under pressure, the movie does not flinch from indicting the French men and women who helped uproot and deport their Jewish neighbors. Over and over, it asks what kind of people could inflict such suffering on children.

Bosch recreates the spring and summer of 1942, when some 13,000 Jews were swept up in the city and suburbs of Paris over two days and eventually sent to Auschwitz. German soldiers handled the final stages, but they would have had no one to murder without the acquiescence of Marshal Pétain and the efforts of the French police.

“La Rafle” introduces us to a rather dizzying array of characters in its opening scenes, including 11-year-old Jo Weissman, his carefree friends and his worried parents and siblings. The Montmarte lads can’t quite grasp the meaning of the yellow star, but everyone else worries that further ignominies are in store.

Alas, not Jo’s bookish father, a World War I vet who refuses to believe that the French would allow the persecution of its Jews. However, he’s not privy to the shadowy deals that the Vichy government negotiates, not only to hand over the so-called “stateless” Jews who fled to France from Germany and Poland in the preceding years, but French nationals as well.

In a slight misjudgment, for it’s almost impossible to depict Hitler and Himmler at this late date without tipping into parody, Bosch shows the head Nazis discussing the French Jews with but a fraction of Petain’s callous disregard. We discern that it’s easy to see people as an abstraction — and to decide their fate — from the distant vantage point of the Wolf’s Lair or Vichy headquarters in central France.

Bosch takes pains to differentiate between the fascist youth corps, who take brutal pleasure in venting their anti-Semitism, and the French cops, many of whom are ambivalent, if not reluctant, participants in this heartless travesty. Amid the pervasive villainy, some people retained their humanity.

The most vivid example is a fresh-out-of-school Protestant nurse (Melanie Laurent of “Inglorious Basterds” and “The Concert”) who’s assigned to the Vélodrome d’Hiver where the arrested Jews have been collected and dumped. Her dedication to these innocents, especially the children, compels her to accompany them (and a Jewish doctor played by Jean Reno) on the next suffering-laden step of their journey.

Once the majority of the characters are under one roof at the Vélodrome, “La Rafle” snaps into linear focus and retains that intensity all the way through the final shot. That last image, incidentally, is of a child staring hard at the camera — at the audience, that is — in a wordless “J’accuse.”

“La Rafle” was a box-office hit in France, which suggests that moviegoers accepted the present-day challenge implicit in the child’s eyes: What is France doing about anti-Semitism today to head off another roundup?

————————

Interview with the filmmaker: Our Disappeared

Searching for Argentina’s disappeared, and finding Jews

By Michael Fox

For a number of European Jewish families, like those of Juan Mandelbaum and Ruth Weisz, Argentina provided a haven from the Third Reich. But the honeymoon ended in 1976.

Mandelbaum’s movingly personal and beautifully rendered documentary, “Our Disappeared,” revisits the ruthless abuses meted out by Pres. Juan Peron’s government after he returned to power. In an interview, and implicitly in the film, Mandelbaum reveals that Jews suffered disproportionately under the regime.

Although just two percent of Argentina’s population is Jewish, Jews comprised 10 percent of the 30,000 people who were arrested, tortured and “disappeared” by the military.

“I see a parallel to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, to preserve these stories and these memories,” Mandelbaum said during a 2009 visit to San Francisco. “To keep a record in people’s own words; to give people an opportunity to tell their own stories.”

Mandelbaum’s father was a German Jew who fled to South America in 1935, and his mother was a Catholic sent out of Germany by her family in 1939. The filmmaker was raised Catholic and, incredibly, did not learn that his paternal grandfather had died in a displaced persons camp in the Pyrenees until after his father’s death.

He came of age in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood where most of his friends were secular German Jews. Like them, Mandelbaum was left of center and politically active. He was luckier than most, though, and got out of Argentina one step ahead of the detention squads.

“I grew up in a family that had been uprooted, that didn’t have deep Argentinean roots,” Mandelbaum explains. “I come from a family of immigrants, and I am an immigrant.”

He moved to the States in 1977, where he “felt like the distant observer of a catastrophe.” He settled in Boston and carved out a successful career as a documentary filmmaker. His lovely 1995 film, “Ringl and Pit” (available on DVD from Icarus Films), profiled the elderly German Jewish photographers Grete (“Ringl”) Stern and Ellen (“Pit”) Auerbach, who lived for many years in New York.

The catalyst for the powerful and profound “Our Disappeared” was a casual Internet search for Patricia Dixon, a long-ago college girlfriend. Mandelbaum was stunned to discover her snapshot on a list of people confirmed to have been arrested and disappeared.

So he went back to Argentina, a place of both sweet and ugly memories. Mandelbaum’s profoundly empathetic journey had many goals: to discover what happened to Patricia, to come to terms with a reprehensible chapter in Argentina’s recent past and to see how the suffering of that era still intrudes on families 35 years later.

Among the old friends and acquaintances the filmmaker visits is Ruth Weisz, the mother of one of his boyhood friends. Growing up, he’d spent a lot of time in the Weisz house, and the years seem to melt away as she shows him around.

“I was like one of the sons she had lost,” Mandelbaum recalls. “There was something very deep between us, I feel.”

It’s one of the most touching passages in a film that’s full of them. As difficult as it is to grieve for a loved one, it’s even more painful to mourn a young person whose potential was snuffed before it could bloom.

“The worst curse in the Jewish religion is when no one remembers you,” Weisz tells Mandelbaum.

Then she expands her statement to include all of the disappeared.

“The worst that can happen to someone is not to be remembered,” she says, unbowed.

————————

Interview with the filmmaker: War Against the Weak

Non-Jewish director illustrates “War Against the Weak”

By Michael Fox

The contributions of Swiss bankers and American industrialists to the Nazi cause are widely recognized. However, the American roots of Hitler’s monstrous obsession with a master race — which culminated in genocide — are not quite as well known.

Edwin Black’s award-winning 2003 book, “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race,” delineated the shocking ways in which American academics, powerful businessmen and elected officials devised and disseminated a bogus scientific rationale for genetic improvement that justified discrimination, sterilization and institutionalization.

Black’s findings are reaching a wider audience through Justin Strawhand’s visually stunning documentary of the same name. “War Against the Weak” screens Feb. 14 in the San Diego Jewish Film Festival with the director scheduled to attend.

Strawhand, who is not Jewish, discovered the concept of eugenics on a conspiracy-themed Web site, he said in an interview last summer when “War Against the Weak” played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

“I started researching, and it seemed such a shame to me that this true story was shackled next to UFOs and crop circles and worldwide conspiracies,” the New Jersey native said with a smile. “In some ways, I wanted to rescue the story from its place in some otherwise unsavory company. I was under the presumption that isn’t it interesting how similar American eugenics was to the Nazi policies, and I didn’t realize that they were, in fact, the same movement. Edwin was the first person to make that connection conclusively. Once I found his book, I had no choice. The story chose me.”

Strawhand spent two years searching archives all over the U.S. and Germany for documents, photos and films he could use to illustrate the history of eugenics. The Third Reich is by no means the focus of the film, but it represents the most extreme and heinous application of the philosophy.

“Nazi policy wasn’t an aberration,” he asserts. “It didn’t fall from the sky; it wasn’t a tumor or a growth that just grew by itself. It was watered and fed by American thought, by American money. It was part of a global movement that didn’t start trying to eliminate the Jews. It just ended up there.”

However, Strawhand emphasizes, the American formulation of eugenics did not target Jews, or at least no more than other racial, ethnic or immigrant groups.

“The amount of prejudice that is contained in the idea of eugenics is so vast that something like anti-Semitism just becomes a piece of a tapestry of hatred,” he explains. “I didn’t see a clear example of targeting Jewish people. Now, I have an image of Henry Ford handing out watches to Boy Scouts at a eugenics conference in Grand Rapids. So there’s certainly overlap from known anti-Semites who embraced eugenics, and I’m sure were able to rationalize their prejudice through science. That’s really the point of the movie: the dangers of putting science to prejudice.”

Strawhand was surprised to discover how popular eugenics was, even winning the approval (at least briefly) of Rabbi Stephen Wise and Helen Keller.

“Within the movement, there are Jewish supporters of eugenics,” Strawhand reports. “A lot of progressive Jews in Reform Judaism would actually swap pulpits with Protestant ministers and do eugenics sermon contests. Early on, it was just a politically progressive idea, as ridiculous as that sounds now.”

“War Against the Weak” has played numerous festivals, and while it’s obviously an important film with relevance for any moviegoer, Strawhand particularly appreciates Jewish audiences.

“The sensitivity to the things that smack of eugenics is heightened in the Jewish community,” Strawhand notes. “I would hope that people with the [special] sensitivity to the Holocaust would be the front line in recognizing echoes of that, and ways that those ideas reassert themselves in the present.”

———————-

Review: The Yankles

A field of Jewish dreams takes shape in this unconventional sports comedy

By Alanna Berman

A comedy about a yeshiva baseball team, “The Yankles,” directed by David Brooks and co-written with Zev Brooks, is the perfect sports film for any age.

The storyline opens as Charlie Jones (Brian Wimmer) is released from his coaching position for the Los Angeles Angels because of a drinking problem. Sentenced to jail-time and community service, he searches for a baseball team to coach voluntarily to fulfill his service requirement. Unfortunately, no team will take him because of his very public history — except the Yankles, who are just as desperate for a coach as Charlie is to get back into baseball.

Pure comedy ensues as an army of Yeshiva student baseball players, dressed in their uniform black and white suits, march onto the field with tzizit hanging freely and payot tumbling from their baseball helmets.

A group of misfits, the team is led by Elliot, or Eli Melech (Michael Buster), a student who has a personal history with Charlie and who convinces him to coach their team. The interplay between Charlie and his new team is charming and often uproarious, as two cultures collide and Charlie learns a few choice Yiddish words to replace his usual foul-mouthed dugout speech.

But the film is not entirely without seriousness. Elliot’s father (Don Most of “Happy Days” fame) downplays his son’s eventual choice to leave a promising baseball career for the rabbinate. The intensity of the shaky father-son relationship is magnified, as much of Elliot’s interaction with his father takes place at the local bar.

“You can’t be a ball-player and a rabbi,” Most’s character says to Elliot, who is fast leading the Yankles to the college baseball playoffs, with the help of Charlie, of course.

The epitome of the self-hating Jew stereotype, Most plays Elliot’s father perfectly, raising questions about how religion can fit into secular society.

Rife with religious meaning and messages, the movie nonetheless struggles to follow one storyline. Among other subplots, it hints at a relationship between Elliot’s sister, Debra (Susanne Sutchy), and Charlie, then drives home a message about interfaith relationships. Regardless, the film manages to tie up all loose ends by the closing credits.

With Charlie’s help, the Yankles achieve success on the field, and with the Yankles’ help, Charlie succeeds in righting those he has wronged in the past and redeeming himself in the eyes of those who watched his very public downfall.

A timeless sports comedy, a love story and an exploration of Jewish life, “The Yankles” is a feel-good movie with appeal to all ages and religions.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.