Despite a fear of alienating viewers, American films have become a primary vehicle for coming to terms with Hitler's final solution
According to Tim LaHaye's enormously popular Left Behind novels, apocalyptic rapture is imminent, as soon as every Jew converts or dies. It might soon be too late to attend a Jewish film festival.
The fourth annual San Antonio Jewish Film Festival arrives just in time for a glimpse at the still-vibrant varieties of Jewish experience, through fiction and nonfiction from France, Germany, Italy, and the United States. It includes one perennial crowd-pleaser, Fiddler on the Roof, which makes bittersweet music out of the end of Anitevka, the shtetl inhabited by a pious but perplexed milkman named Tevye. In an Ashkenazic Rocky Horror Picture Show, audiences are invited to sing along with such familiar tunes as "Tradition" and "Matchmaker."
This year's other festival entries have never been seen in San Antonio or else have screened here so briefly that the few who saw them could hardly form a minyan. Leading off is Gloomy Sunday, a lush tale of love, loyalty, and betrayal set in a restaurant in Budapest. For artistry and emotional power, it matches any other release last year. In Facing Windows, an aging, amnesiac stranger insinuates himself into a working-class family in contemporary Rome. The nonfiction Ruth & Connie records how two Brooklyn mothers end up joining their lives and the fight for gay rights. Thunder in Guyana documents the unlikely life of Janet Rosenberg, who married a South American revolutionary and ended up president of Guyana. Grand and droll, Le Grand Rôle stars Peter Coyote as an American director intent on shooting The Merchant of Venice in Paris in Yiddish. Stephane Freiss plays a French actor anxious to keep his dying wife from learning that he lost the part of Shylock.
The systematic extermination of 6 million lives was, Steven Spielberg tells the camera, "an ineffable experience understood only by those who survived the camps." Added to the difficulty of making mass slaughter cinematically meaningful was a reluctance to shock or offend. During the 1930s, fear of rousing domestic anti-Semitism and losing foreign markets kept Hollywood from vilifying Nazis. One exception, The Mortal Storm (1940), dramatized the effects of Nazism on a "non-Aryan" family without ever mentioning the word "Jew." When Charles Chaplin ridiculed Hitler in 1940's The Great Dictator, it was, recalls Sidney Lumet, the first time he ever heard "Jew" in a movie. Nonetheless, a Congressional investigation into how Hollywood Jews were allegedly pushing the country into war was called off only after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
It was through movie images of the death camps that the world became aware of the Holocaust, but Jewish producers remained wary of being charged with special pleading. In 1959, a televised production of Judgment at Nuremburg removed references to gas chambers at the insistence of its sponsor, the American Gas Company.
When the nine-hour American TV movie Holocaust was broadcast in Germany, it was said to have greater impact on the national conscience than the original. "Hollywood," declares media critic and historian Neal Gabler, "is the means by which most people, for better or worse, come to terms with the Holocaust." The San Antonio Jewish Film Festival is a means by which local viewers can come to terms, for better, with remarkable films by and about Jews. •