With the San Francisco Silent Film Festival holding forth at the Castro Theater this weekend, and the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival following close behind, suppose we pause for a minute to think about how the Jewish experience has been showcased on stage and screen. Many of us faithfully watch Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, without realizing that DeMille had produced and directed a silent version back in 1923.
While the 1960s was a decade known for the Beatles, the hippies, Woodstock, the Kennedy assassinations, free love, the Stonewall Riots, feminism, and the drug revolution, it was also a decade in which Jewish characters, Jewish families, and Jewish history were showcased in a series of Broadway musicals:
- Jerry Herman's first big hit, Milk and Honey (1961), focused on the excitement of sabras and kibbutzim in Israel.
- Harold Rome's musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), explored the tension faced by Jews working in New York's garment district and featured the Broadway debut of the young Barbra Streisand.
- Based on Budd Schulberg's novel, What Makes Sammy Run? (1964) starred Steve Lawrence as the ultimate Hollywood backstabber.
- Funny Girl (1964) starred Barbra Streisand as the young Fanny Brice.
- Inspired by Sholem Aleichem's tale of Tevye the Dairyman, Fiddler on the Roof (1964) depicted the breakup of shtetl life under the brutal pogroms in Tsarist Russia.
- Based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, and John van Druten's subsequent dramatization, I Am A Camera, Kander & Ebb's musical, Cabaret (1966), looked at the last gasp of the Weimar Republic in the context of Berlin's underground.
- The Rothschilds (1970), which proved to be Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's last collaboration for Broadway, dealt with the rise of the famous Rothschild family to financial wealth and political power.
The opening number from Cabaret, when taken out of its original dramatic context, can be a lot of fun. Just witness this clip of the show's star, Joel Grey, singing Wilkommen! with the Muppets:
Then compare the sheer joy of working with the Muppets to the sense of impending doom one feels while watching this scene from the movie of Cabaret:
Film has an amazing capacity to make people pay attention to the more unsavory aspects of genocide. Over the years, many filmmakers have contributed to a growing library of cinema which deals with the Holocaust. Among the more powerful movies are:
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Czech filmmaker Jiri Chlumsky's Broken Promise is another one of those Holocaust epics whose hero seems to go through more live-changing challenges than Homer's Odysseus. From the moment the patriarch of a Jewish family raises his wine goblet during the Passover seder and asks every member of his family to promise that they will come together again to celebrate Pesach the following year, the sense of impending doom is inescapable. A handful of prescient Jews are seen leaving for America. But for the ones who stay behind, death awaits them in Nazi concentration camps.
The film's protagonist is a young Jew (Samuel Spisak) whose athletic skill as a soccer player eventually saves his skin. Also talented at playing chess, his ability to analyze a situation, think quickly and make decisive (albeit startling) moves saves his ass time after time after time.
Based on the real-life story of Martin Friedmann-Petrasek (who narrates the final part of the film and is seen in his old age), Broken Promise tracks Friedmann's survival from his early attempt to form a Jewish soccer team to his volunteering to join his friend Fred Mahler's (Juraj Sadilek) soccer team in a work camp, knowing full well that his athletic prowess may save him from annihilation.
With a strong screenplay by Jan Novak, the audience follows Friedmann through a series of situations in which others quietly protect his Jewish identity. Whether working in a furniture factory or a monastery, whether as a patient confined to a Catholic infirmary or as a member of the underground Partisan resistance, Friedmann learns how to do what is necessary in order to survive from one day to the next.
Broken Promise had its world premiere on April 25th at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature). North American distribution rights have been acquired by Picture This! Entertainment. Broken Promise is a massive undertaking and a bona fide tearjerker, anchored by an outstanding performance from Samuel Spisak (you'll want to have the DVD). Here's the trailer:
* * * * * * * *History has a nasty way of repeating itself. Although World War II may have come to an end, anti-semitism most certainly did not. While 1968 brought labor strikes to France, Polish government leaders reacted to Israel's victory in 1967's six-day war against Arab forces with a new wave of Jew-hating hysteria.
A new documentary entitled Gdanski Railway Station includes footage from some of Communist party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka's incendiary speeches. More than 10,000 Polish Jews were expelled from Poland, forced to relinquish their Polish citizenship, and sent to Israel. Most were allowed to carry no more than $5 per family and forced to leave on extremely short notice.
Maria Koczanowicz's documentary focuses on the survivors of the purge, many of whom left Poland through the train station in Gdansk (Danzig). Once again, trains become a powerful image of the forced and emotionally-wrenching mass migrations of Eastern European Jews.