What constitutes anti-Semitism in a film? Does it have to be a negative representation of a Jew … or just something stereotypical? I’ve mulled this question recently as I pondered how individuals of my heritage have been depicted on the silver screen over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that hate and contempt work in disparate, though not-so-mysterious, ways. I discovered that certain flicks I enjoyed as a child are offensive to me now, as well as that other, more contemporary motion pictures that I’d dismissed as unimportant carry a variety of insidious traits. As a way to condense my findings, I’ve assembled a short list of 10 major movies—some famous, some infamous—featuring a range of Judaic interpretations that perpetuate fallacies about my culture. I’ve shared the list below; let me know if I’ve missed any, as I’d be interested to hear of more examples.
10) March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934): Remember this classic Laurel and Hardy Christmas fantasy, in which the two brilliant comedians (playing doofuses, of course), save the nursery-rhyme playground of Toyland from the evil landlord Barnaby and his “bogeyman” minions—all to the tunes of some sublime Victor Herbert songs? Despite its non-Jewish subtext, I watched this during my childhood whenever it was on TV … which was usually during the holiday season. As an adult, however, I noticed that Barnaby is as stereotypically Jewish as they come, down to the hunched posture, swarthy features and conniving behavior, all buttressing his miserly attitude. It’s never said in the film that he’s a member of the tribe, but it’s a disturbing portrayal by actor Henry Brandon, and the subtext is quite hateful. Rather scary for a perennial December institution on the telly.
9) The Terminator (1984): I noted in a recent essay for the wonderful movie blog CURNBLOG that this seminal, action-packed science-fiction flick features an unsympathetic character named Dr. Peter Silberman who, as the lone individual in the film with an identifiably Jewish moniker, may be interpreted as an anti-Semitic component. Though Silberman, played by Earl Boen, doesn’t exhibit particularly Hebraic mannerisms, the name is the thing here … and the fact that he’s an obnoxious, dismissive psychologist who doesn’t believe the protagonists’ stories about murderous robots from the future while having contempt for his patients suggests a distressing subtext. He’s also without a parallel “good” Jewish character, so that makes his contemptibility more telling.
8) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011): Once upon a time, I enjoyed the Harry Potter pictures, which made every youthful fantasy of being a wizard come to life on the big screen. Sadly, this final installment is quite monotonous, with little of the wonder and humor showcased by the previous films. It also has one other problem: the Gringotts’ goblins, those wizened, ugly, officious masters of the sorcerers’ bank that control the money flow. Could they be … perhaps … anti-Semitic caricatures? The thought seems ridiculous for such a beloved children’s series, yet I can’t help but consider the idea, which stems from the ties to finance, their unpleasant demeanor and creepy appearances. Is this a not-too-thinly veiled comment on the association with Jews to the monetary world? I hope not, but it seems pretty blatant.
7) Oliver Twist (1948): Alec Guinness’s fascinating performance as the thief king Fagin caught a lot of heat from Jewish groups back in the day—particularly because of a ridiculously large prosthetic nose that brought up less-than-positive Hebraic connotations. What’s interesting about this portrayal, however, is that although Fagin is obviously shown as a villain, he’s a heckuva lot less vile than his irredeemable friend Bill Sykes, frighteningly conveyed by the great Robert Newton. There’s a problematic context in this cinema masterpiece, for sure, but it’s complex, much like Shakespeare’s Shylock, who gets the greatest, most sympathetic speech in The Merchant of Venice, despite his unpleasant traits. The qualities in Twist are both good and bad, so fitting the Fagin character into a particular hole isn’t easy … even after all these years.
6) Independence Day (1996): “Hey,” you may say. “What’s wrong with this? After all, don’t the Jews, in part, save the day?” Yes, the Jewish characters help save the world from mean old aliens in this silly sci-fi film from director Roland Emmerich, but this is one example of a positive portrayal that falls into troubling stereotype. The character in question is Julius Levinson, father to Jeff Goldblum’s hero David Levinson and played by veteran actor Judd Hirsch as a jokey, hokey old man. When he gathers people around him to pray in a time of desperation, another character suggests he can’t because he’s not Jewish. “Nobody’s perfect,” says Levinson. Oy, the tsures. Somehow, this broad performance rubbed me the wrong way; it felt crass, unrealistic, as opposed to the cuddly sensibility it seemed to reach for. Does every alter Semite on the screen have to be so … so … grizzled? It’s more Borscht Belt than Kuiper Belt, frankly.
5) Nosferatu (1922): Imagine a toothy, long-clawed monster that drinks people’s blood and reminds folks of “the other.” Well, you’ve got the titular vampire in this brilliant, influential film directed by F.W. Murnau. The idea that this undead creature is attracted to—and thrives on—the substance that flows inside us all brings up connotations of the notorious “blood libel,” used since time immemorial to slander and indict Jews by suggesting they use this life-sustaining liquid in the Passover matzo. The possibility that this film is anti-Semitic is curious here, especially owing to the fact that the religion of the monster (played by Max Schreck) isn’t specifically stated. Is he Jewish, the traditional “enemy” of civilized humanity? It’s a tantalizing question.
4) The Phantom of Liberty (1974): I love this surrealist film from director Luis Bunuel, but I’ve always had one issue with it. There’s a female character named “Rosenblum” who has always struck me as one with a Jewish name. She engages in a peculiar game of S&M with a man that suggests, in the film, some kind of bizarre perversion … which indicates, in my mind, a link between Judaism and debauchery. Given the fact that Bunuel exposes his anticlerical side throughout the movie (and has done so throughout his career), it should be obvious to me that my religion wouldn’t come out unscathed; still, it’s somewhat troubling for the connection to arise. I ask: Why “Rosenblum”? Why a Jewish-sounding name? I’ll probably never know.
3) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974): They don’t come much more obnoxious than the namesake character of this film based on the Mordecai Richler novel, an ambitious, unpleasant jerk ably played by Richard Dreyfuss in his heyday. The bar mitzvah sequence has to be seen to be believed in its attack on insensitivity, but what lingers is a distaste spurred by the mean-spirited “hero” of the movie, who seems to care only for himself. Does this representation foment Judaic stereotypes of the selfish, aggressive human out to step over everyone else to succeed? I think so; though the movie does have its nuances, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Bothersome.
2) The Passion of the Christ (2004): Mel Gibson has got to be one of my least-favorite directors working today … not because of his well-documented public outbursts, but rather owing to his tendency to let his performers overact; his predilection for blunt, two-dimensional imagery; and his inability to control pacing problems in his films. The Passion of the Christ has all of these problems, but it also characterizes Jews as hateful, mobbing fanatics out to destroy the Messiah. There was some controversy when this film came out about whether the biblical line condemning the Jews and their descendants for Christ’s killing was removed from the film or left in and untranslated from the Aramaic; regardless, it paints an ugly, all-too-traditional picture of adherents of the Jewish faith, which could potentially instigate further anti-Semitic hatred.
1) Jud Suss (1940): One of the most offensive movies of all time—a Nazi-designed cinematic attack on Jews and their religion during the Holocaust—is also one that should be shown to everyone. The titular Semite here is played with ruthless, sleazy villainy by Ferdinand Marian; he’s dark, shady, homeless, prone to chicanery and sexual violence, as much of a parasite as the Third Reich wanted people to believe his people were. I believe this picture should be seen by everyone today, as it’s an incredible teaching tool against the evils of anti-Semitism … and the ability of the cinema to disseminate the most abhorrent depictions of races, faiths and orientations. An important film and one that should never be forgotten.