I note that this film, by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, has opened in the US and to stellar reviews. I saw it in February here in Paris—where the reviews were similarly rapturous. It’s a short, austere film—80-minutes in length—set in Poland in 1962, of an 18-year-old novitiate nun, Ida (first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska), who is summoned to visit her aunt—the one surviving member of her family and whom she has never met—, Wanda (played by a well-known TV actress, Agata Kulesza), a hard, bitter woman in her 40s who is a magistrate and Communist party member, i.e the total opposite of Ida and in every respect. Wanda reveals to Ida the dark secret of her past, that she was a Jew whose parents had put her up for adoption during the war before seeking refuge with a Catholic family, and were murdered—and not by the Nazis. And Wanda then takes Ida on a journey to her family’s onetime home in the countryside, to find out how her parents were killed. And while she’s at it, she advises Ida to experience life in the outside world—with nightlife and men—before deciding if she really wants to live her life in a Catholic convent. It’s a haunting film, beautifully shot in black-and-white, and in which, in the words of one critic, there is not a frame “that isn’t composed with superb artistry and attention to detail.” The one mixed review of the film—in Variety, as it happens—opines that it will appeal only to “the most rarefied” of cinephiles. Well, it’s still playing at several Paris theaters three months after its opening and has been given the thumbs way up by Allociné spectateurs—over a thousand of whom have graded it—as much as it has by the critics. Trailer is here.
I’ve seen a few other Holocaust-themed films over the past several months. They are, very briefly:
Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Le Dernier des Injustes’ (The Last of the Unjust). I hesitated on going to see this one, on account of its 3½+ hour length—the arrogant Lanzmann clearly doesn’t have much consideration for the eventual time constraints and attention span of his audience—and because I have yet to see his 9-hour ‘Shoah’ in its entirety, which I figured I should do first (one of these days I’ll get the DVD, draw the curtains, turn off all lights, and watch it in one sitting). But after listening to the dithyrambic reaction to this one by a (very smart and insightful) friend and reading Mark Lilla’s review essay in the NYRB, I decided that I really should take a Sunday afternoon and catch it before it vanished from the Paris salles obscures. And despite briefly nodding off at a couple of points, I will say that it was well worth it. Those who have any interest in the subject and in seeing the film already know the story: Lanzmann took footage of the many hours of interviews he conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna after the Anschluss and who headed the Judenrat at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the final years of the war, and made a documentary of the painful—and, as we learn, misunderstood—history of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis in the implementation of the Final Solution. Murmelstein was hated by Holocaust survivors—and would have likely been arrested, if not possibly killed beforehand, had he ever set foot in Israel—and lived out his life in Rome in relative obscurity. Lanzmann was ill-disposed, to put it mildly, toward Murmelstein when he began the interviews but, as Murmelstein told his side of the story, Lanzmann’s attitude evolved, and he finally embraced him in the end. Murmelstein, who was neither an angel nor a devil, presented himself—convincingly—as a man put in an impossible position who tried to do the best he could for his fellow Jews at Theresienstadt given the circumstances. The documentary—which refutes Hannah Arendt’s thesis (and particularly her view of Eichmann, with whom Murmelstein had extensive dealings)—is a tour de force. Trailer is here.
‘The German Doctor’ (titre en France: Le Médecin de famille). This is an Argentinian film set in 1960, of a couple with three children who travel to Barlioche, on the edge of the Andes in northern Patagonia, to take over a lakeside hotel-lodge. Beautiful area. And far away from everything. There is a German community in town, with its own school and all—and where Nazism is still in vogue. On the way to Bariloche the family crosses paths with a man who presents himself as a doctor of German origin and also happens to be heading in precisely their direction. The family’s 12-year-old daughter, named Lilith, is fascinated by the mysterious doctor—who gives her a doll that she names Wakolda (thus the Argentinian title of the film, taken in turn from director Lucía Puenzo’s novel on which it is based)—and as Lilith is short for her age, the doctor, who takes up residence in the lodge, says he has a special treatment for her. And so he treats her. The doctor turns out to be Josef Mengele, who is continuing to perform his evil experiments on guinea pig humans. The father gets suspicious and, as it happens, the Mossad is hot on Mengele’s heels, so he hightails it out of the area in the nick of time—with the aid of the extensive Nazi network in the area (and in southern South America more generally)—, though not before wreaking some havoc. The film is engrossing, well-done, well-acted, and all but I had mixed feelings about it, mainly as Mengele gets away in the end and that was that. So what was the point in even making the movie? French critics mostly liked it (and with Allociné spectateurs liking it even more). Trailer is here.
‘Victor Young Perez’. This one’s a biopic, directed by Jacques Ouaniche, of the Tunisian Jewish boxer Victor “Young” Perez, born in 1911 in a quartier populaire of Tunis, who was brought to France in the 1920, went on to win the French flyweight championship in 1930 and then the world flyweight crown the following year. He boxed through the decade, becoming a celebrity in Paris high society circles—and taking up for a time with the movie star Mireille Balin—, but who went into a tailspin and, remaining in Paris during the Occupation, was deported in 1943 to the AuschwitzIII-Monowitz concentration camp—where Nazi guards amused themselves by staging boxing matches between him, now emaciated, and the strongest among them—, before he was killed during the death march in 1945. A tragic story but an interesting one, and an a priori good subject for a biopic. But the film doesn’t work. It’s by-the-biopic numbers and with big gaps in the chronological narrative. And there are casting errors, of the actress who plays Mireille Balin—the Italian Isabella Orsini, who was likely chosen for the role because she’s beautiful tout court—and, above all, Brahim Asloum, who plays Victor “Young” Perez. Asloum was a professional boxer himself, winning the light flyweight gold medal for France at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and, in 2007, the WBA light flyweight crown. He’s okay as an actor but is 100% Algerian in physical appearance. He looks nothing like a Jew (even a Sephardic one), so is not entirely credible in the role. Too bad. French reviews were mixed. Trailer is here.