Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a secular saint for a large portion of the American public. We pray for her continued survival and wish her only the best. Just hang on, Ruth, we plead. Just another two years. First there was the surprise hit documentary “RBG,” a deeply admiring examination of the Supreme Court justice and how she got to her current position. Now, we have a feature film, just as complimentary, about her earlier life and legal career as an advocate for women’s rights. “On the Basis of Sex” stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, perfect casting once we saw in “RBG” what a knockout Ginsburg was as a young woman, and Armie Hammer as her equally attractive husband, Marty. The movie is a guaranteed pleaser for everyone except Ginsburg haters and maybe even some of those. It’s hard to resist the story of a beautiful, brainy, ferociously hard-working woman who manages to take care of a desperately sick husband, a baby, and two Harvard law-school workloads at the same time. To counter the rage you feel when the brilliant Ginsburg is turned down by law firm after law firm there’s the sweet satisfaction of watching her destroy the legal infrastructure of sex discrimination through an obscure tax case she prepared for the ACLU, the one case she worked on with her tax-lawyer husband. Directed by Mimi Leder from an original screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew, the movie follows Ruth from her time at Harvard through her career at the ACLU, where she led the Women’s Rights Project. There’s a cameo by the real Justice Ginsburg at the end. That’s where we all stand up and cheer.
I loved “Roma” when I saw it in the theater, and I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have told me that they couldn’t get through it or found it confusing and disjointed. Clearly, this isn’t an easy-to-like movie like “On the Basis of Sex,” but it’s definitely worth the effort. The director Alfonso Cuaron based the film on memories of his own childhood in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood called Roma in the early 1970s. “Roma” traces the intersecting stories of two women: Sofia, a middle-class mother and wife, and Cleo, her indigenous nanny and maid. Both Sofia and Cleo have trouble with the men in their lives, both go through traumatic experiences, and both find their footing by the end of the film. The women are close though separated by class and circumstances. What ties them together is their shared responsibility for Sofia’s four children, who love Cleo as much if not more than their mother. The life Sofia and her children lead depends on a servant class, but Cleo enjoys a life separate from her job, too. She has friends, a boyfriend, and connections to other servants and workers. Cuaron manages to give us a view of a whole society and how it works without extraneous exposition or lecturing. In the same way, he shows us how machismo cuts across class lines. Sofia is treated as badly by her callous doctor husband as Cleo is by her arrogant boyfriend. “In the end, women are always alone,” Sofia tells Cleo. The movie is beautifully shot in black and white and it moves forward in a definite narrative arc, although not an obvious one. A lot has been made of Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo, but I thought the whole cast was superb, including the children. Cuaron gets natural, energetic performances from them without any artificial cuteness. A Netflix production, it’s available right now on Netflix, as well as a few theaters. I don’t think you lose much by watching it on a smaller screen.
Another foreign film I enjoyed was “Cold War,” my Christmas movie this holiday season. By the same director who made “Ida,” this black-and-white beauty spans the late 1940s to the 1960s and focuses on the tortured love affair between a musician and a singer. The film has won numerous awards and is Poland’s entry for best foreign language Oscar. Director Pawel Pawilkowski based the story loosely on his parents’ relationship, which must have made for a tumultuous childhood. Wiktor is the musical director of a folk troupe in post-war Poland when he finds the beautiful young Zula at an audition for singers. The two soon become lovers as the troupe gradually loses its authentic folk character and becomes more of a propaganda vehicle for Poland’s Soviet overlords. Disillusioned with communist restrictions, Wiktor moves to the West and settles in Paris. At one point, Zula joins him but she cannot find a sense of self outside of Poland. The lovers separate and reunite, unable to come to a geographic resolution. And yet, they cannot bear to be apart. Joanna Kulig is gorgeous and heartbreaking as Zula, and the older Tomasz Kot exudes a taciturn sex appeal. Pawilkowski is another director who manages to convey a great deal of information without resorting to exposition. We feel the weight of the Soviet control of expression and thought through Wiktor’s restlessness and disdain; no one needs to explain the refugee’s sense of displacement, of never feeling completely at home–Zula’s frustrated despondency shows it. The movie runs less than 90 minutes and none of that time is wasted.
I’ve been watching and writing about Holocaust movies for almost forty years, and yet every year films are made about aspects of that historical event that surprise me. It’s astonishing. At this rate, filmmakers will be discovering new Holocaust topics to make movies about forty years hence.
“Who Will Write Our History?” tells one of those unexamined stories. In November 1940, soon after the Nazis herded all of Warsaw’s Jews into the Ghetto, the historian and Yiddishist Emanuel Ringelblum and a clandestine group of 60 scholars, journalists, and community leaders began to gather a secret archive of documents. Working under the code name Oyneg Shabes, Ringelblum and his associates urged ordinary people to write down everything they saw and experienced in order to create a historical account from a Jewish perspective. The collection included diaries, poems, posters, jokes, songs, along with first-hand narratives of daily life and eyewitness accounts of Nazi horrors. When the Germans began to empty the Ghetto and send the residents to Treblinka, Oyneg Shabes buried 60,000 pages deep underground in the hopes that the documents would survive, even if the collectors didn’t.
Writer/director Roberta Grossman, an experienced documentarian, has approached her subject through a variety of nonfiction filmmaking techniques. There are interviews with talking heads, a ton of archival photographs and films, and extensive recreations of the men and women in Oyneg Shabes and the Ghetto. The skillful combination of these techniques makes the film extraordinarily vivid and compelling. Almost all the footage we have of the Ghetto and the Holocaust in general comes from German propaganda films. That has to affect our perception of what we see, since the German goal was to portray the Jews as degraded and wretched creatures who were less than human. Using dramatized recreations helps to balance that impact and focus on the noble work Ringelblum and his associates pursued.
Our guide is Rachel Auerbach (voiced by Joan Allen), one of the few survivors of Oyneg Shabes, who initiated the excavation of the manuscripts after the war and later worked for Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Auerbach and Ringelblum escaped the Ghetto and fled to the Aryan side of Warsaw as the Ghetto burned; she survived, he did not.
Two of the three caches that Oyneg Shabes buried have been recovered. In 1999, UNESCO included the Oyneg Shabes Archive in its Memory of the World Register.
Another excellent docudrama about a little-known facet of the Holocaust is the German film “The Invisibles.” Selected for the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival, this movie uses the same mix of techniques–dramatizations, interviews, and archival footage–to create a film as exciting as a thriller. After Goebbels declared Berlin free of Jews in 1943, 7000 Jews remained in hiding. Of those, 1700 survived until liberation. “The Invisibles” focuses on four young people–two men and two women–and recounts through interviews with the four survivors and dramatized segments how they managed to live through the remaining years of the war. Seventeen year old Hanni Levy dyed her hair blonde and spent her days wandering the streets, often ducking into movie theaters, until she found shelter with an understanding movie clerk. Cioma Schonhaus worked as a passport forger and became successful enough to afford a sailboat. Eugen Friede, another teenager, hid in the home of a sympathetic Communist and eventually joined a resistance group. Ruth Arndt pretended she was a war widow and found work as a maid in the home of a Nazi officer who was a black marketeer. All of the stories feel like movie plots, as do so many stories of Holocaust survival.
It is no surprise that a German film focuses on the kindness and support that some Germans provided to vulnerable young Jews. This approach makes “The Invisibles” a lighter, pleasanter viewing experience than “Who Will Write Our History?” Director Claus Rafle, another experienced documentary filmmaker, intersperses the interview material with the dramatizations in a highly effective manner and the actors even begin to resemble their real-life counterparts after a while. In lesser hands, dramatizations in documentaries can be suspect, a way to juice up the drama, but in both these films they make the stories more vital and more comprehensible.
That’s a lot of viewing for now. More soon.