Film Fest Captures Complexities of the Jewish Experience

by Sura Wood

The 35th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showcases eclectic independent features and documentaries.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, now in its 35th year, offers a strong line-up of eclectic independent features and documentaries that address Jewish experience. Included are films about the lives of art collectors, rock promoters and novelists, and, in a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, several that examine that subject in a variety of ways.

Among the Holocaust films, “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” an official documentary ordered by the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1945, was originally intended as a testament to human barbarity and as an instrument to combat the inevitable deniers. But, due largely to post-war political agendas, the film was never completed and languished in British archives for 60 years until 2010 when a five-year restoration project got underway. The six-reel film, which incorporated editing and script advice from Alfred Hitchcock, comprises explicit footage shot by Allied soldiers and news cameramen during the liberation of concentration camps and other sites of atrocity. Though the images of camp brutality have been seen in other contexts, they remain hard to bear. According to the British Film Institute’s program notes, “even experts on the subject of the Holocaust…often state that this film is the most disturbing they have seen.” Previously only clips were available for viewing, but the festival offers a rare opportunity to watch the entire film.

Another more recent film, David Evans’ psychologically probing Holocaust documentary, “A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did,” asks, What is it like to be the child of a mass murderer? The film, which includes remarkable archival materials, evolved from the research of Phillipe Sands, a Jewish international lawyer who became acquainted with Niklas Frank, the elderly son of war criminal Hans Frank, the governor general—aka “butcher”—of Occupied Poland. Niklas condemns his father, whom he remembers as cold and distant. He “loved Hitler more than his family,” says Niklas, and supposedly found God only on the morning he was hung for his crimes. Niklas Frank introduced Sands to his friend Horst von Wachter, the son of Otto von Wachter, a Nazi officer who oversaw the liquidation of Polish ghettos and the extermination of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. The sons are a study in contrasts: one freely acknowledges the guilt of his father and is clearly haunted by his deeds and the other is in denial. Even when Sands, whose grandfather lost 80 relatives in Ukraine, confronts Horst with evidence attesting to the elder von Wachter’s culpability, the son prefers to cling to a sanitized myth that his father was a loving, decent man who “had no choice,” and in fact, he says, protested Nazi racial policies. “He wanted to do something good,” Horst explains. “He was a casualty, too.”

The first half of Zdenek Jirasky’s “In Silence,” a fictionalized account of the experiences of several real-life Czech and German performers during World War II, is flooded with the sounds of jazz and passionate classical piano as well as the sweet harmonies of an all-male singing group. The movie, shot in lush color with a painterly eye, opens with an exuberant impromptu jazz tap dance-off on a Prague tram, where a group of young men vie for the attention of a pretty woman. The scene shifts to a jazz pianist playing for stylish cafe patrons and then to bucolic idylls in the countryside and a ballet studio with aspiring students. But a hush falls over these hopeful, vibrant lives as an image of a printing press, shrouded in darkness, churns out Nazi decrees forbidding Jewish musicians to perform. It’s not long before the youthful artists are wrenched from their homes, stripped of their possessions and transported to camps. With one exception, all of them survived the war after enduring unfathomable horrors. Concert pianist Edith Kraus, whose ability to play classical compositions by memory helped her escape death, lived to the age of 100.

Infectious humor informs Leah Wolchok’s ”Very Semi-Serious,” a diverting documentary about “The New Yorker”and its fleet of cartoonists led by witty pied piper Bob Mankoff, the publication’s cartoon editor. Cartoons have been a mainstay at the magazine since its inception, but under Mankoff’s benevolent and discerning leadership, it has opened up its submission process to a younger, more diverse field of applicants. Still, the odds of rejection are formidable: of the 1,000 weekly submissions, only 15 are published. Wolchok interviews several cartoonists—most have day jobs—and listens in on Mankoff’s meetings with a cavalcade of offbeat aspirants and veterans whose work he reviews.

With intuition, family money, no shortage of chutzpah and a lack of formal grounding in art history, Peggy Guggenheim amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of modern art. That art “mirrored her own strangeness,” observes one of many talking heads in “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s portrait of a rebellious, eccentric heiress who lived life on her own terms in an era when few women had the means, inclination or guts to do so. Photos of Guggenheim show her with artists she cultivated, like her friend and great teacher Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and others whose careers she helped build, such as Jackson Pollock, as well her handsome and unfaithful husband, Max Ernst, who used her to advance his career. On view are enough artworks to fill a museum.

The feared and revered film critic Pauline Kael, who proffered smart, scathing insights and honed a distinctive point of view on KPFA radio in the 1950s and early 1960s, was uncompromising in her opinions and conversational in her writing style. Christian Bruno’s short, “Ed & Pauline,” looks at Kael’s brief marriage to Ed Landberg, owner of the Berkeley Cinema Guild, a twin repertory cinema on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where she worked as manager and programmer. (The theaters have since been razed.) Kael authored the pithy program notes that enticed audiences to attend “The Seventh Seal,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Night of the Hunter,” films that were legendary but not readily accessible to moviegoers at the time. Her vigorous prose, which had a loyal, even fanatical following, also had its detractors. “This was a religion, not journalism,” director John Waters recalls in the film, which includes commentary from former “Village Voice” critic J. Hoberman and Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy, among others, along with sound bites from Kael’s reviews. Landberg, who once told “The New York Times” that it didn’t take him long to discover he “couldn’t stand this woman,” asked for a divorce. Soon after, Kael joined the staff of “The New Yorker,” where she became one of the most influential film critics in the country. Landberg, who died in 2012, was visibly frustrated at being overshadowed by Kael and not above taking some credit for her success. “In a sense,” he says, “I forced her to become famous.”

The 35th San Francisco
Jewish Film Festival

July 23 → Aug. 9

Castro Theatre, San Francisco; CineArts Theatre, Palo Alto;
Rafael Film Center, San Rafael;
California Theatre, Berkeley;
Oakland Museum of California & Parkway Theatre, Oakland