NY Jewish Film Festival
(January 11 – 24, 2017)
Film Society of Lincoln Center/Jewish Museum
NYJFF 2017 has a big palette; color it interesting. Opening day/night’s film is Moon in the 12th House (director Dorit Hakim will be present at both matinee and evening screenings), a look away from more familiar Israel-specific military and settlement issues to a very contemporary and personal tale of two sisters who inhabit very different lives. Their dilemmas resonate far beyond their homeland, mirroring family conflicts familiar throughout the West. Hakim observes and probes deeply into her characters, with her cast working hand in glove to demand our attention (Yuval Scharf and Yaara Pelzig as the sisters are superb). This is an important film for everyone who cares about the basics of how parents determine the paths their children take, the consequences of their choices, and the possibilities of redemption in challenging circumstances. Rooted in tradition, these young Israelis learn how to shape-shift into adult lives in a non-traditional world. Highly recommended.
One of this year’s features is a slate of exceptional revivals, with a big palette all their own. Threepenny Opera (Pabst, 1931), based on the Brecht-Weill musical of 1928, itself a lineal
descendant of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728, is not to be missed. While Gay’s version offered a charming pastiche score of popular songs, hymns, and opera tunes, it’s Weill’s original score that remains the gold standard. Its powerful bite has not been matched. Of course all three versions have their own backstories, but for a telling account of the mother of all behind-the-scenes movie dramatics, marvel at Tony Rayn’s account https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/614-the-threepenny-opera-doubles-and-duplicities. It will seem like today’s news. While the film as seen now omits many of Weill’s matchless ballads, it offers a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife and muse), and a sense of what made Berlin the international capital of attitude and art between the wars.
Nur zum Spass, nur zum spiel—Kaleidoskop Valeska Gert (Volker Schlőndorff, 1977). A look back at the queen of eccentric dance and stage and film acting, famous in the same Berlin and then a refugee who fled to America and survived by washing dishes and running a series of cabarets staffed by then-very young busboys like Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams (among others). A rebellious standout even in Berlin, Gert appears in the Threepenny Opera (in a small role), but deserves Schlőndorff’s attention to reveal her truly revolutionary and original talent as a real ancestor of Punk, way ahead of its time.
And make space for The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) on the big screen. Forever fabulous, it’s the only way to immerse yourself in the outsize phenomenon that was Zero Mostel, and his partner in crime Gene Wilder, aided and abetted by Mel Brooks. Treasure those laughs…
For one more look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), attend Closing Night to see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Babara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives); and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader (famous for her role in Aimée & Jaguar) applies her acting smarts to her cast’s talents, and gets a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich. (P.S.:Pay attention to the way the end of the film is shot. Fascinating choices.) Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.
Returning to the present, don’t miss Peshmerga―Bernard Henri-Lėvy’s documentary about the eternal struggle of the Kurds to prevail against IS, as the war rages through Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey with no end in sight. The Kurds are determined to create Kurdistan for themselves, and we will have to wait until their multi-sided battles have been resolved to see the future. This is war up close and personal, being observed by one of France’s leading writer/philosophers.
Since William Kentridge is unquestionably a prolific, articulate, original and utterly charming subject who talks and performs as well as he paints, draws, and makes film, attention must be paid to Andrea Patrieno’s account (Triumphs and Laments) of the artist’s murals (reflecting Rome’s history) painted on the banks of the Tiber, where they will ultimately be washed away by the river’s ebb and flow. Kentridge is a subject hard to get enough of, and time spent in his company is time to be cherished. Grab it while you can (Patrieno will be present for Q & A at both screenings).
Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon (Andrea Simon) This is a truly stunning work on every level, from an accomplished filmmaker with a subject made for her talents. Even in the Festival’s august company (Kentridge, Zweig, Gert), the 94-year-old Wagenstein dominates the screen. Described by a supertitle (“94 years; 52 films; 3 revolutions”) he offers up his life with a heady brew of humor (“I am a Marxist because of the Marx Brothers”), humanity, and survival skills that you will hate to abandon at the film’s end.
Simon benefits from an archival deluge of Wagenstein’s films and documentary footage covering most of the 20th century. But most of all she benefits from Wagenstein himself, an international treasure whose memories and personality are every filmmaker’s dream. I shudder to think of how hard her choices must have been, and mourn the thousands of feet of footage that had to be left behind, even as I celebrate the brilliance of her decisions and the film she has made from them packed into only 84 succulent minutes. Angel Wagenstein has everything, and you will regret it if you can’t find a ticket for its single screening (Sunday, January 22 at 8:30 PM, Walter Reade). Andrea Simon will be there afterwards for a Q & A, likely to be as rich and as interesting as the film itself.