Monday, September 15, 2008

Some Lived

Some films complement each other in the strangest way.  Their creative processes may have taken place on different continents, in different years or decades.  And yet, when placed side by side, two films can act like laser-enhanced bookends to shine a light on a specific theme, actor, director, or historic event.

Two films scheduled to be shown at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival accomplish that feat with remarkable acuity -- although, from looking at the festival's catalog and website, one would not necessarily expect that to happen.

Nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Andrzej Vajda's Katyn covers a shameful episode in World War II during which Soviet forces slaughtered nearly 15,000 Polish prisoners of war.  Many were executed at point blank range in the Katyn forest during the winter of 1940.  

In 1943, when the German army discovered the mass graves, Soviet authorities denied responsibility for the genocide, instead claiming that it had been executed by the Germans back in 1941.  Russian authorities finally admitted in 1990 that the Katyn murders had been carried out by the NKVD (the leading Soviet secret police organization during Stalin's reign).  In 1992, Boris Yeltsin officially declared that the actions in the Katyn forest were a direct result of an order from Joseph Stalin.

However, until that time, the truth about the Katyn murders had been suppressed throughout post-war Poland.  Those who tried to find the truth were persecuted.  Families of victims could not even light candles at the graves of their lost ones.

An estimated three million Poles were killed by Stalin's forces.  And lest we forget, Stalin was the man who once said that "When one person dies, it's a tragedy.  When a million people die, it's a statistic."  

With that background, it's easy to understand why the making of Katyn -- which tries to put human faces on this particular genocide -- has been so important to the Polish people.  Wajda (whose father disappeared in the Katyn killings), states in his director's notes that:  

"I see my film about Katyn as the story of a family separated forever, about great illusions and the brutal truth about the Katyn crime.   In a word, a film about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts.  A film which shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.  Loyal and unshaken, convinced that it was only enough to open the door to see the long-awaited man at it as the tragedy of Katyn concerns those who live and lived then."

Katyn is an extremely powerful war epic whose huge cast and depressing story is not going to leave you waltzing out of the theater on a happy note. I was particularly impressed with Pawel Edelman's cinematography, Wieslawa Chojkowska's set decoration and Magdalena Biedrzycka's costume design.  Kryzsztof Penderecki (one of Poland's most famous composers) supplied the haunting score for Vajda's epic.

One would think that Katyn is a tough act to follow (it will take audiences a while to recover from what they learn during Vajda's film).  However, a surprisingly appropriate companion piece can be found in a heartwarming documentary entitled Four Seasons Lodge. The title refers to a bungalow colony in the Catskills that has been inhabited for 25 summers by Holocaust survivors. Most are Polish and Austrian Jews who spent their adolescence in concentration camps like Auschwitz, where they came face to face with Nazi officers like Joseph Mengele.  Some had extended families of 300 people or more, yet were the only members of their family to survive the concentration camps.

Upon arriving in America, many of these people sought out other Holocaust survivors.  They have spent the past quarter of a century enjoying their summers in the company of people with similar backgrounds -- people who can understand the horrors of the concentration camps while vibrantly embracing a freedom they could not even imagine living long enough to experience. Minus their original extended families (who were sent to the ovens), these survivors have bonded to form an extended family of their own.

Directed by Andrew Jacobs with a cinematographic team led by Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) Four Seasons Lodge is not your typical documentary about seniors living in retirement communities.  Instead, it captures the fading paradise in upper New York State that was created by a group of Holocaust survivors determined to keep dancing, drinking  and laughing their way toward the final days of their lives.  As the camera pans over a group of seniors playing cards, many of their arms still bear the tattoos they received in concentration camps.

"This is our revenge on Hitler," claims Fran Lask, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen.

"I'm 91 years old and last night I danced," marvels one of the men.

The film follows life at the Four Seasons Lodge in what is expected to be the resort's final season, as many bungalow owners have voted to sell the resort to an outside buyer.   But as the season rolls on, seller's remorse starts to set in and some people don't want to give up their summer homes.  Watching this documentary is a lot like revisiting childhood moments in the company of grandparents who pronounced the word "bungalow" as "bungele."  It's a touching portrait of people who have made friends their family, who have stayed strong against incredible odds, and who continue to live their lives with the kind of joy and dignity that was once unimaginable to them.

Watch the trailer and see for yourself.

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