Thursday, July 14, 2011

But Is It Good For The Jews?

On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel declared its independence as a nation.  Since then, it has become a focal point of tension in the Middle East. However, there was a time when Israel was a land filled with hope and promise. That spirit was poignantly captured in Jerry Herman's 1961 musical, Milk and Honey.

With the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival fast approaching, it's interesting to see two films which focus on Israel in its youth. One is a long-neglected narrative, the other a documentary that will appeal to an extreme niche audience.

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As part of its tribute to Kirk Douglas, SFJFF is screening 1953's The Juggler, in which Douglas stars as a Holocaust survivor suffering severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. While the role of Hans Muller gives Douglas plenty of opportunity to sink his teeth into dramatic and romantic moments, it also shows audiences a side of him they have rarely seen -- especially if they only think of the actor as a rugged, masculine hero (Douglas demonstrates his impressive skills as a ventriloquist and as a juggler throughout the film.)

Kirk Douglas in a scene from The Juggler

Under Edward Dymtryk's direction, The Juggler was filmed on location in Haifa, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and on the Hill of Galilee. It captures the early enthusiasm of native Israelis for their newly-formed Jewish state as well as the paranoia of European refugees who, upon hearing the term "refugee camp" only hear the word "camp" and assume the worst.

The Juggler especially interesting for modern audiences (who have a much better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder) to see how it was depicted half a century ago.  While Milly Vitale made her screen debut as Ya'El (no relation to Kal-El), the woman who is willing to take a chance on building a relationship and having children with someone as emotionally damaged as Muller, some of the most impressive acting comes from young Joseph Walsh as Yehoshua Bresler (the young sabra who insists on becoming Muller's guide and, after being injured by a land mine, becomes the first Israeli juggler).

Viewers may be amused by the frequent use of the popular waltz from Johann Strauss's operetta, Weiner Blut. Here's the trailer:

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In today's celebrity-obsessed culture, millions yearn for their 15 minutes of fame. Shalom Nagar is someone who probably never wanted the notoriety he received. As shown in The Hangman, Nagar is an elderly Yemenite Jew who, according to ancient Jewish ritual, works as a butcher who blesses both the animal he is about to kill and the customer he is about to serve.

After Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires, he was brought to Israel to stand trial (Eichmann was drugged and smuggled aboard an El Al plane in a flight attendant's uniform). Nagar (who was of Yemeni descent) was assigned to Eichmann as his bodyguard. He stayed with Eichmann in his prison cell, tasted Eichmann's food to make sure the German war criminal was not being poisoned and was eventually ordered to pull the lever when Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962.

Directed by Netalie Braun and Avigail Sperber, The Hangman mixes archival footage from Eichmann's trial, old films of Nagar in uniform, and footage of Nagar ritually slaughtering animals and arguing with his wife and customers.

In some ways, Nagar seems very much like a modern-day Tevye, sharing his opinions about God and mankind with his friends, listening to a series of foolish women, and mourning the death of his son, who fought a losing battle against cancer. Here's the trailer:

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