This may strike you as counterintuitive, but the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which begins Saturday, is perhaps not the ideal setting for continuing the sporadic discussion about the necessity and impact, at this late date, of films about the Holocaust. After all, the festival encompasses a much, much wider view of the Jewish experience than genocidal victimization, with dramas and documentaries that range from contemporary Israel and Russia to '70s Argentina, from baseball to klezmer to gangsters. So it's somewhat unfair to the SFJFF (while feeding both stereotypes and Woody Allen-ish one-liners) to focus on the handful of films that revisit the Holocaust.
But, you see, I'm fascinated by the strategies and tactics filmmakers use in an attempt to get younger audiences to engage with history. (Two films that played the S.F. International Film Festival a few months ago -- 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, a color-tinted archival-footage documentary about World War I, and Garbo the Spy, a tongue-in-cheek WWII historical doc, which stirred in sequences from Hollywood cloak-and-dagger thrillers -- were clearly conceived to connect with next-generation moviegoers.) At the same time, I'm continually struck by contemporary views of the Holocaust that are informed by a fresh willingness to confront both state complicity and individual moral gray areas.
"A Film Unfinished"
Yael Hersonski's masterful documentary, A Film Unfinished, which returns in October for a brief theatrical run, unearths a mysteriously uncompleted Nazi film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in early 1942 and, via diary entries by residents and the modern-day recollections of survivors, debunks the would-be propagandists' version and exposes the suffering and cruelty visited on the Jewish community. The film isn't obviously or stylistically postmodern in its appropriation and re-contextualization of archival footage, but it does ask us to consider how we accept images that have assumed the weight and gravity of historical relics.
"Saviors in the Night"
The engrossing German-French drama Saviors In the Night, which opens the festival, was adapted from the memoir of a German-Jewish woman who was hidden (with her young daughter) by a family of farmers during the war. The movie delineates the dangers and risks that everybody involved faced, of course, but it's less a story of right and wrong and good and evil than an evocation of life during wartime. Everyone suffers, and must make difficult decisions, and also has various opportunities to show kindness to others. Saviors In the Night isn't so much a Holocaust movie, in other words, as a humanistic film about people who choose to transcend identity and divisions in order to survive.
Marek Najbrt's stylish Protektor is a jazzily shot and scored look at a range of Czech responses to the Nazi Occupation. A rising Jewish actress has her career effectively ended, while her non-Jewish husband, a radio journalist, finds unexpected success as the regime's on-air mouthpiece. He provides protection for his wife, in a way, but also a kind of jealous captivity that she rejects in provocative and dangerous ways. Protektor is interesting both for its blend of period and contemporary filmmaking approaches, and for its distinctly modern take on Czech compromise, collaboration and cowardice.
I'm looking forward to seeing Army of Crime (which plays once during the festival and then opens Aug. 20 for a week at the Sundance Kabuki), a French drama about a circle of Jewish and Communist resistance members directed by Robert Guediguian, the latest in a quite impressive string of French filmmakers challenging the official history and received wisdom about the country's behavior during the Occupation.
"Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades"
The festival's most devastating take on the Holocaust, however, is unquestionably Michael Prazan's Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades, a horrifying and unflinching three-hour exposé of (among many heinous acts) the SS's enlistment of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, et al in the extermination of the Jewish populations in a sweep of Soviet republics. It's too late for justice to be served, and it's hard to make a case that knowledge of past genocides serves to prevent or stop the next one. But, just maybe, it's a kind of deterrent to would-be mass murderers that a filmic, historical record will be compiled, and will serve as their judgment for eternity.
The 30th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 24-Aug. 9, 2010 at the Castro Theatre and the JCC in San Francisco, the Roda in Berkeley, the CineArts in Palo Alto and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information visit www.sfjff.org.