CultureJew: 2 Foreign Films, 1 Israeli Series, & Oscar Recap

Two films I saw a long time ago at press screenings have finally arrived in theaters, and they are both worth watching. Loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter, “Never Look Away” follows a boy from his childhood during the Third Reich to young adulthood in East Germany and then to the west. As written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (to be referred to as “the director” from now on), who also made the wonderful “The Lives of Others,” the movie has an epic quality, covering decades of historical incident and dealing with all the big political movements of the twentieth century.

At the beginning, we meet little Kurt Barnert, who loves to draw and follows his beloved aunt’s advice to never look away. The handsome Tom Schilling plays the grown-up Kurt as an art student in Dresden after the war. There he falls in love with a fellow student and follows her to her large and luxurious home, very different from the cramped, ugly digs where most East Germans live. Her father, a well-respected gynecologist, disapproves of the match, but the two marry anyway. Tiring of the socialist-realist wall art he has to do in the east, Kurt convinces his wife to flee to the west where his mind is blown by what’s going on in the art world. He struggles to find his style, trying various forms of abstraction and conceptual art. In the meantime, his father-in-law is revealed to have been a member of the SS, where he performed eugenics-motivated surgeries and did other terrible things, none of which prevented him from building a prosperous and respectable life in the new Germany.  As you can tell, there’s a lot going on here, from the reintegration of Nazis into German society to the faddishness of modern art to the myths of eugenics. The director has firm control of the material, however, and the film, though long, is never boring. It was Germany’s selection for the 2019 Oscar for best foreign language film.

Refugees Are Always the Same

The one film I saw at the New York Film Festival, “Transit,” an artsy exploration of the tragedy of forced migration, is now in theaters. In occupied France, Georg agrees to escort a North African refugee with an infected leg wound to Marseille, the one free port where the refugee might sail to America. When the man dies in the train car, Georg takes the manuscript he was carrying and a passport belonging to the manuscript’s author, who we have seen commit suicide at the beginning of the film, and adopts that person’s identity. Georg contacts the refugee’s family and befriends his young son, Driss. He also goes to the immigration office and learns that there is a visa waiting for him (or for the man he’s impersonating) to go to Mexico. That man’s wife has also gone to the office and learned that her husband is in the city. As she searches for him, unaware that a stranger is posing as her husband, the film becomes ever more Kafkaesque.

Director Christian Petzold adapted the story from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name, but he has eliminated all specific references to Nazis and World War II. Yes, the country is occupied by threatening forces and police are shooting people in the streets, but the cars are contemporary and Marseille looks as it does today. The people desperate to escape are of all races and could have come from anywhere. Petzold’s clear point is that people running from war and persecution today are no different than they were in the 1930’s and 40’s. That becomes ever more clear as Georg seems to exist in a sort of transit camp, one where there’s nothing to do but wait and eat pizza and drink wine in cafes. While beautifully shot and an interesting intellectual puzzle, “Transit” doesn’t have much emotional power, at least for me.

Frum Jews Hit the Big Time

Everyone I knew was raving about “Shtisel,” so I settled in to watch the Israeli series on Netflix. Set in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, the show focuses on a haredi family consisting of the widower Shulem Shtisel, his unmarried son Akiva, a married daughter who has been abandoned by her husband, and too many other characters to list. For a soap opera, which it definitely is, “Shtisel” is more engaging than most. The characters behave in believable ways for the most part, and there’s humor as well as melodrama and pathos. The patriarch Shulem, an obnoxiously narcissistic man, tries to control the lives of his children, while he makes a fool of himself searching for a much younger bride.. The aspiring artist Akiva, the youngest of Shulem’s kids, falls in love with a twice-widowed older woman, and that tortured romance takes up a lot of the first season, along with his sister’s shame about her husband. At the end of Season 1, neither of these storylines was resolved. Surprisingly, the runaway husband is given a self-revealing speech, which makes him one of the more sympathetic characters.

The novelty here is that these frum Jews are presented as ordinary folks, neither overly sentimentalized nor demonized. They have money troubles, problems with their jobs, unsatisfying family lives, and all the rest of humanity’s burdens, but the watchful and narrow-minded community in which they live makes everything harder. For me, “Shtisel” was no advertisement for the religious life; there is almost no emotional intimacy between any of the characters (aside from the grandmother and her dead husband) and repression of thought and feeling is the order of the day. Although Shulem’s children are unfailingly respectful towards him, their interactions are those of veritable strangers. It’s surprising how isolated these characters feel in this claustrophobic community. Perhaps that’s the point; when the only autonomy one has is in one’s mind, one spends a lot of time there.

What Were the Oscars Thinking?

The slate of Oscar nominees underscored the weakness of the year’s offerings for me.  Aside from “Roma,” which I loved, the rest of the nominees ranged from terrible to enjoyable-but-not-great. How “Vice” landed on the list is beyond me. It’s one of the most irritating and unsuccessful movies I’ve seen in years. “Black Panther,” “A Star Is Born,” and “Green Book” were all fun to watch, but really nothing out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t describe any of them as great movies or even original ones. I didn’t see “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “The Favourite,” but what I read about them didn’t make me feel they were essential viewing. “BlacKKlansman” was the best of the bunch after “Roma,” I thought, with a lot of originality and Spike Lee’s signature wit and verve.  This is why I don’t watch the show, along with those squirm-inducing acceptance speeches.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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