thesearchOpens this Fri (10/28/16) at the Cinema Village in Manhattan. Click HERE for details. Review coming soon.

From the Cinema Village website:

Isaac Babel's writings are subversive masterpieces, challenging the ideology of the early Soviet Union, and resulting in his arrest and execution in 1940. On the 75th anniversary of Isaac Babel's execution, Finding Babel follows Andrei Malaev-Babel, his grandson, on a journey to come closer to some sense of truth. Hoping to better understand Babel's powerful artistic method and elusive persona, Andrei journeys through Ukraine, France and Russia; locations deeply tied to the story of his grandfather. He confronts lingering traces of a turbulent history that echo in Babel’s writing and in the conflicts and climate of today’s Ukraine and Russia.

With each stop, Andrei gets closer to the complex stories that Babel wrote with depth and hidden meaning. Ultimately, through powerful interviews and a painful examination of Babel’s NKVD file, Andrei engages with his grandfather’s arrest, torture and execution. Babel’s life story and his fiction are woven into Andrei’s search with ethereal animation that puts viewers, like Babel’s readers, somewhere between reality and fantasy.

Featuring the voice of Liev Schreiber as Isaac Babel


Photo Credits:

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withfbiEwan McGregor's new adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral is a noble failure.

The screenplay has a complicated structure which keeps Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's alter ego) two steps removed from his subject Seymour Levov (aka "Swede"). Thus reduced in the screenplay to a framing device, the Nathan Zuckerman character is unable to provide adequate context for a story which appears to run in real time from Swede's point of view.

In the end, American Pastoral utterly fails to convey who is telling us what, therefore both the "inside story" that Swede should be telling and the "outside story" that Nathan should be telling fall flat.

While all of the actors try valiantly, none of them is able to become more than they are on screen, although Dakota Fanning (as Swede's daughter Merry) fares best. (JLH: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Philip Roth published his novel American Pastoral in 1997, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998. I'm not quite sure exactly when I read it, but suffice it to say it was long before I had any clue that I would one day grow up to become a film critic. So this puts me in a somewhat unique position relative to my own self-imposed rules as a film critic. I know I read the source book, and I know I loved it when I read it. But I read it so long ago that I don't really remember why I loved it, much less any details of plot and character.

Bottom Line: I did not come to Ewan McGregor's new adaptation of American Pastoral as quite the "blank slate" I always try to be, but that said, I had no specific assumptions beyond the certain knowledge that I wanted to love it. I didn't.

Like most of Roth's best work, American Pastoral is set in and around the Newark, New Jersey shtetl in which we were both born. (No, really! In The Plot against America, Roth locates his young self on Wainwright Street between Chancellor Ave & Lyons Ave... which is exactly where I lived until age 9!) It goingradicalis part of a series of novels about Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (who, according to Roth, lived on Lehigh Ave, where my cousins lived). It was known as the "Weequahic Section" of Newark because it was anchored by Weequahic High School. Weequahic High was on Chancellor Ave right next to Chancellor Elementary School, the school I went to before my family moved to Livingston (the same suburb where Neil meets Brenda in Goodbye, Columbus).

This world, once so familiar to Roth (and to me) disappeared decades ago, and it has been a very long time since either of us lived there. But Nathan Zuckerman (played in the film by David Strathairn) ventures back to Newark for his 45th reunion at Weequahic High, and this is where he runs into his buddy "Jerry Levov" (Rupert Evans). Jerry was the younger brother of "Seymour Levov" (Ewan McGregor), one of the best loved alums in the history of Weequahic High. And yet, things did not turned out as planned, and the plot of American Pastoral  revolves around the life of Seymour Levov, first his glorious rise, and then his cataclysmic fall from grace.

Even without remembering any of the details of Roth's novel, I know for sure that the "outside story" Nathan should be telling starts with the childhood of a Jewish boy from Newark who is exceptionally blond and athletic. His physicality makes him such an anomaly in his close-knit community that the birth name "Seymour" soon gives way to the nickname "Swede." Roth's irony is intentional. Swede comes of age in America at the very same time that the Nazis are imposing their "Final Solution" on the Jews of Europe, something they justify as "natural" based on their need to preserve the "purity" of their Aryan bloodlines. So how to deal with the fact that Swede looks more like their kind than his own? Do the Jews of Newark love him in spite of this or because of this? No doubt a bit of both. Then the icing on the cake: Swede--the hometown hero--graduates from Weequahic High and becomes a United States Marine just in time to participate in the triumphant finale to World War II. Yowza!

But McGregor makes two huge mistakes in his role as a director. First, he thinks it's enough to show newsreel footage of monumental historical events, as if we all know what we are seeing and we all agree on the meaning of what we see. I don't think I heard the word "Holocaust" once, in fact, I think I barely even heard the word "Jew." And so, by the time we get to 1967--when Swede is a bit player in the Newark Riots--the painful tension that should be there between the Jewish characters and the African American characters is chillingly absent. These riots--which brought all Jewish life in Newark to an abrupt end--are just used as a plot point, and then they are over... and then all of the African American characters simply vanish from the screen.

Perhaps these problems are due to a poorly constructed screenplay? IMDb tells me that screenwriter John Romano was born in Newark in 1948. Therefore he is a little bit older than me, and much younger than Roth. Romano has had a distinguished career as a writer for television (beginning with a stint on Hill Street Blues in the late '80s), but not much luck with feature films. (His adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe, which stars Diane Lane and Richard Gere, ranks right up there in the list of the worst films I have ever seen.)

Even so, McGregor's second huge mistake as a director was casting himself as Swede. McGregor is a wonderful actor and I have treasured his contributions to a great many films most especially Big Fish (2003), Young Adam (2003), Miss Potter (2006), Beginners (2010),  and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). But McGregor has never had the commanding physical presence required to play Swede. Even in his most well-known "action figure role" (as a member of the Star Wars cast), McGregor played young Obi-Wan Kenobi, in other words the most cerebral guy onscreen.

Since he is never remotely believable as Swede-the-Jewish-Ubermensch, McGregor is never able to draw us into the "inside story" that Swede should be telling about how this man of such great promise literally had his heart torn asunder by the contradictory pressures of the 60s. To be a good father, to be a good son, to be a good husband, to be a good boss, to be a good neighbor, to be--in sum--a mensch in the Jewish sense (regardless of whether or not he lived as a practicing Jew), it is all too much for Swede. Someone who never failed as a youth succumbs to utter failure as a man, but the Swede on screen lacks the gravitas Zuckerman needs him to have in order to make sense of why he is personally so affected by Swede's passing.

The only actor able to transcend this mess is Dakota Fanning who plays Swede's daughter Meredith (aka Merry). Miserable from the start, Merry channels her rage into revolutionary action, determined to change the world because she cannot change herself. Alas, this makes her arc not just poignant but timely. How many young people today take up causes they will one day come to regret?

(I am reminded of the superlative documentary Killing Kasztner in which Ze'ev Eckstein tells filmmaker Gaylen Ross on camera how he came to be involved in the plot to assassinate Rezso Kasztner in 1957, and how much his actions back then haunt him now).

Even though both her director and her screenwriter hobbled her, Fanning still succeeded in winning my respect and breaking my heart anyway. Since Merry is the character closest in age to my own, I feel sure I would have smelled a rat if anything about Merry had been off. Quite the contrary, Fanning dominates every moment she is present onscreen, and when she is not on screen, her absence left a void for me as well as for Swede.

Are all Philip Roth adaptations doomed?

This is the second adaptation of a Philip Roth novel to reach the screen in 2016. The first one, a few months back, was Indignation. Most of my colleagues on Rotten Tomatoes wrote somewhat kinder reviews, but then most of the reviews posted on RT are written by guys. I did not like Indignation and I did not recommend it. One way or the other, Indignation was a commercial flop.

So it this just another case of the old cliché a source book is always better than its screen adaptation? I do not believe that old cliché, and, in fact, every time I argue against it, one of my favorite examples is The Human Stain, a film by Robert Benton that is much better than the Nathan Zuckerman novel on which it is based.

The critics who posted on RT when it was released were very hard on The Human Stain, and it was also a commercial flop. Nevertheless, I suspect it plays much better now that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are no longer the big stars they were way back in 2003.

I am also very fond of Isabel Coixet's film Elegy (based on Roth's David Kepesh novels), which was much better received by critics, but still not the success with audiences that I think it should have been.

Here is my capsule review of The Human Stain with comments on two earlier adaptations (Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint). And here is my full review of Elegy, with extensive comments about the transition from page to screen. And here is Eliana Levenson's review of Indignation with my own "Two Cents" added at the bottom.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/21/16) FF2 Media


Top Photo: Ewan McGregor as "Swede Levov."

Middle Photo: Dakota Fanning as Swede's daughter "Merry" at the start of her rebellious teenager phase.

Bottom Photo: Peace in the Levov home is destroyed when Swede, his wife "Dawn" (Jennifer Connolly), and their young daughter Meredith  (Ocean James) watch the news from Vietnam on television.

Q1: Does American Pastoral pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Definitely not.

Ewan McGregor cast several wonderful actresses in key roles, then gave each of them one big scene with Swede. None of them interact with one another, not even Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Connelly (who plays her mother Dawn-the-Shiksa-Goddess).

Connelly has one terrific scene in which she screams at Swede, telling him what she thought she wanted out of life before she met him. Of course that simple life she says she craved was never to be. A woman as beautiful as Dawn would never have been left in peace by all the men who lust after her. Nevertheless, it was Swede's fate to win the princess only to lose the kingdom.

Uzo Aduba (as Swede's glove factory employee "Vicky"), Valorie Curry  (as Merry's comrade-in-arms "Rita Cohen"), and Samantha Mathis (as the widow of "Russ Hamlin" the man Merry kills when she bombs the post office) each get their big moments too, but otherwise none of them have substantive characters to play. Furthermore, although they may serve the plot as written, these three scenes are all cinematic disasters. Each one is so strong that it stops the show for a moment, but rather than build to a climax, American Pastoral keeps sputtering along on screen until it dies of exhaustion.

Molly Parker also has a couple of brief scenes as Merry's therapist "Sheila Smith," but they left me scratching my head. My gut tells me Dr. Smith is a fairly significant player in Roth's narrative. In the screenplay, however, too much about her role is left unsaid.

I suspect part of the fault for the perfunctory feel of these women characters lies with Philip Roth. Long after he is gone, feminist scholars will likely still be debating whether or not Roth was a misogynist. But once the screenwriter and the director begin collaborating on an adaptation of one of Roth's novels, they should either commit to doing better or trim accordingly.

Q2: Where is the Weequahic Section of Newark?


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IS THAT YOU? (2014)

oldmoviessctDani Menkin’s spin on the traditional road trip movie, Is That You? delivers a poignant bittersweet quality as a man searches far and wide for his long lost sweetheart. In the vein of An Affair to Remember, Menkin’s film captures vulnerability and hope in a quiet way that makes the audience reflect on their own journey. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

As part of his severance package, “Ronnie” (Alon Aboutboul) is given a ticket to travel to the United States and decides to go, hoping to find a long lost lover named Rachel. His brother, “Jacob” (Rani Blair) picks him up from the airport and the two discuss Jacob’s son “Michael” (Patrick Michael Kelly), who recently returned from his Birthright trip with a desire to serve in the IDF, mostly in pursuit of attractive Israeli women. There is some tension as the two discuss Jacob’s failure to return to Israel for their mother’s funeral, but it is quickly dispelled.

At Jacob’s house, Ronnie, Jacob and Michael attempt to track down Rachel via the Internet. They find a woman on Facebook who seems to be a match, although her profile has no picture for verification. They send the profile a message asking “Is that you?” in the hopes of discovering for sure.

Later that night, Ronnie and Jacob watch old home movies of their younger days. Jacob remarks on his younger brother’s obsession with Rachel, who is featured in the video, and how all other women were put into comparison with her. Ronnie reveals that Michael found an address for Rachel and that he is going to go and try to see her. He explains that they had made a pact, that no matter what happened in their lives, they would be together on her 60th birthday. With her 60th birthday in two days, Ronnie is determined to make good on their agreement. Though Jacob thinks his brother has seen one too many romantic movies, he gives his brother a car and sends him on his way.

Ronnie arrives at the address to learn that Rachel moved away with her husband over a year ago. The current tenant offers him a forwarding address which Ronnie takes. However, on his way, Ronnie’s car breaks down. isthatyou

Pulled over and attempting to fix his car, Ronnie meets “Myla” (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), a documentary filmmaker working on a project called “The Road Not Taken” about regrets. She trades Ronnie car mechanic services for him being an interview subject in her film. When he tells her about his mission to find Rachel, she decides to help him. Together, the two venture on a heartbreaking and wacky journey to find Rachel and reunite Ronnie with his long lost sweetheart.

A twist on the classic road trip movie, Is That You? delivers a sweet sadness as our protagonists journey far and wide in search of fulfilling a forty year old promise. Your standard odd couple, Ronnie and Myla each bring a unique quality to the concept of regret and taking chances. Both at very different life stages, their age is only one factor that seems to separate these two and yet, what sucks you into their relationship is not their differences but rather, their similarities. Both are dreamers, though arguably different types, and both truly believe in the journey.

There is something beautifully tragic about Ronnie’s vulnerability as he knocks on door after door, asking “Is that you” of various Rachels. This, coupled with the message of Myla’s documentary interviews, makes for a touching exploration of humanity. The filmmaking style of switching between Myla’s interviews and “reality” creates a unique sense of self and character as the film continues. Almost reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally, Menkin’s film plays with the idea of personal interviews intertwined with a fictional narrative, allowing the two to build off of one another.

Overall Is That You? points to the universality of regret and the way that regret plays into our daily lives. Both in the documentary film and in Ronnie’s search for Rachel, the idea of missed opportunities and lives not lived is at the forefront. Even those who seem happy, even those who are happy, still yearn for something they left behind or something they never tried. The interplay between taking risks and lacking regrets is the elevating factor of this quiet film. While there are parts of the film that fall into the indie cliches, particularly in the building of Ronnie and Myla’s relationship, the film attempts, and primarily succeeds, to address classic narratives in a new way.

© Eliana M. Levenson (10/6/16) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Acclaimed Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul as "Ronnie."

Middle Photo: Aboutboul with newcomer Naruna Kaplan de Macedo as "Myla."

Bottom Photo: After a officer pulls them over, Ronnie and the officer agree to hold up a sign for Myla’s film “The Road Not Taken.”

Photo Credits: Daniel Jourdan


I am so glad Elly liked this movie! She is a young person (near the start of her journey). I am a much older person (heading towards the end of mine). The fact that both of us liked this film so much speaks volumes about Dani Menkin's skill as a filmmaker. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Note that I saw Is That You? last year on screener because it was part of the 2015 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema line-up. Here are some of the things I said about it in my CFIC '15 feature for Chicago's JUF News:

BEST NEW STARS Naruna Kaplan De Macedo stars as "Myla" in Is That You? She looks a bit like Zooey Deschanel, thus priming the audience to expect another "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" character. But to their credit, screenwriters Dani Menkin and Eshkol Nevo have given "Myla" her own poignant and complex arc, and Naruna Kaplan De Macedo totally holds her own in scenes with Alon Aboutboul (who I named Best Actor last year for his starring role in A Place in Heaven).

BEST SCREENPLAY This year-for the first time-I am also adding a Best Screenplay category in honor of Is That You? Ostensibly this is a road movie with many genre tropes, but the dialogue is so beautifully written that sometimes I found myself gasping as I watched. Although his name is not in my press materials and it is not on IMDb, I detected the name of award-winning Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo as the credits rolled, and then it all made sense. Kudos to director Dani Menkin for finding collaborators who could help him write the perfect words for his perfect cast. Then add a shout-out to composer Issar Shulman for his lovely musical score (which is augmented by songs chosen personally by Menkin and melded together by Philip Gozlan's sound design).

BEST ACTOR This was the toughest category to call this year, but in the end, after seesawing back and forth, my choice is Ze'ev Revach for his portrayal of "Yehezkel" in The Farewell Party... The runner-up in this category-of course-is Alon Aboutboul, who stars as "Roni" in Is That You?


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screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-7-24-49-pmUsing predominately still photos, voiceover, and talking heads style interviews, Ken Burns & Artemis Joukowsky's documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War retells of the Sharps' heroism as they sought to help Jews flee Eastern Europe prior to World War II. While often succumbing to the biographical blackhole of fact, the film provides glimpses of true humanity and personal impact, leaving the audience with moments of honest emotion and appreciation.  (EML: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Black and white photos ebb and flow as Tom Hanks’ familiar voice recites a letter from Waitsill Sharp, written after the war to his wife who was still completing another refugee rescue mission in Europe. Seven years after they began helping Jews and other victims flee Nazi controlled Europe, Waitsill reveals a desire to settle down again, to return to their life and their home and their family. This marks the end of the Sharps’ repeated journeys in and out of war torn Europe, doing all that they could to help rescue as many people as possible.

What follows, are videos and stills from the Nazi takeover of Europe. Hitler rallies. Soldiers drawing Jewish stars on business fronts. Books being flung into a large bonfire. This is the Europe, this is the danger that the Sharps knowingly ventured into, leaving the comfort of their quiet American suburban life in the quest to help others.

Waitsill Sharp and his wife, Martha, missionaries through the Unitarian Church in the United States, were offered the opportunity to venture to Europe before the onset of World War II. Despite being the parents of two young children, both agreed to the trip and their duty to help those in need abroad. Once in Europe, specifically Austria, the truth about the risk they had placed themselves in becomes clear. The punishment for being caught providing immigration papers to Jews and other refugees was punishable by death, and the Sharps lived in constant fear of discovery. Still, they continued to work to rescue those they could, often having to take long arduous routes, changing trains often to avoid detection, and traveling separately from one another.

After many successful missions, and with the danger growing as the impending war became imminent, the Sharps returned home with the agreement that they would not be returning to Europe. However, when Waitsill was offered another mission, he did not hesitate to accept on behalf of himself and Martha. Martha, though furious with her husband for signing her up without permission, agreed to return to Europe with him, this time, focused on ensuring the safety of children.

The film concludes with many of these children sharing memories of their final boat trip, accompanied by Martha, that brought them to freedom in the United States. Most were traveling alone or with siblings, their parents and family members unable to leave with them. Some as young as five or six, torn from their homes and sent to live in a foreign country for the brief hope of being spared the horrors that awaited those that remained in Europe. This shipside goodbye would be the last time that many of these children would see their families, most of their loved ones lost to the gas chambers and the firing squads. Yet, all of these survivors express the same sentiment as they look back on the moment that their lives changed. For all, there is an undying gratitude to Martha and the Sharps family to whom they owe their life and their lineage.

Told through both first person letters written between Waitsill and Martha, and testimonies of those they helped, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War paints a vivid picture of two people who risked everything to save others. Despite this, however, the film falls short of delivering the strong emotional punch that feels necessary to elevate this documentary from educational to inspirational. Watching the film feels more like reading a biography about the Sharps’ heroism than being brought into the atrocities they faced and tried to correct.

Perhaps the only truly emotional moment comes at the end, as the surviving children from Martha’s final trip put back on the beige berets that had once secured their ride to freedom. As each of these survivors discusses what Martha’s heroism means to them, the audience, for the first time, can truly appreciate the importance of what the Sharps contributed.

While still an interesting exploration of two World War II heroes often unnoticed in major history books, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War would have benefited from a shift in balance from historical fact to personal connection. It is in the quiet moments with the survivors, recounting what the Sharps’ heroism means to them and how it directly affected their lives, that the audience is sucked into the story and taken out of being merely a bystander.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (10/4/16)screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-7-24-54-pmTop Photo: Poster for Ken Burns’ Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.

Bottom Photo: A Sharp family portrait.

Photo Credits: PBS Television

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DENIAL (2016)

pressconfsctMy favorite Yiddish Expression is "Man Plans; God Laughs." In this instance, the amazing life of Deborah Esther Lipstadt reached its ironic culmination the week of the first nationally televised debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump.

The debate was held on the evening of Monday September 26, so when Denial--the film about Lipstadt’s courtroom face-off with Holocaust denier David Irving--opened in theaters in Los Angeles and Manhattan on Friday September 30, it was at the edge of mind for everyone in the audience, and the parallels between life and art were unmistakable.

So who is Deborah Esther Lipstadt and how did she come to find herself in a courtroom in London in 2000?

Click HERE to read my full review for JUF Online (posted 10/7/16).


I want to state outright that I understand that many people will vote Republican next month because they are sincere Conservatives and hold positions (e.g., Pro Life, Fiscal Restraint, etc) that make the potential election of Hillary Rodham Clinton anathema. My review is not Pro-Hillary; my review is Pro-Truth.

As I said in my review, I had the privilege of attending long Q&A sessions after the two early screenings I attended, so three times, I heard Lipstadt say this: “The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. The Black Death happened. The earth is round. The polar icecaps are melting. And Elvis is no longer alive.”

Need I say that much time was spent in these Q&A's discussing Donald J. Trump, his connections with the Alt-Right, and the dynamics of his candidacy. Here is how Wikipedia begins its description of Trump's involvement in the Birther Movement: "In March 2011, during an interview on Good Morning America, Donald Trump said he was seriously considering running for president, that he was a "little" skeptical of Obama's citizenship, and that someone who shares this view shouldn't be so quickly dismissed as an "idiot"... Trump added, 'Growing up no one knew him,' a claim ranked Pants-on-Fire by Politifact.DENIAL

Donald Trump demanded a birth certificate. The state of Hawaii produced a birth certificate. No matter how many times the state of Hawaii told Donald Trump that Barack Obama was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, Donald Trump refused to accept the fact of it. Why? Because he was after something else.

But the most interesting question raised in the first Q&A was: Deborah, Why you???

One of her Emory friends actually asks the Deborah character this very question at the beginning of Act Two. In the film, Deborah says: "Because I am Jewish and an American." But in the Q&A, she gave three reasons:

"I am an American, I am a woman, and I am a Jew who is known as a Jew."

The first reason makes total sense. Irving waited until Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory was published in the UK precisely in order to have the plaintiff's advantage in a British court. The film even shows how he set up her in front of American students so he would "have the goods on her" when he was ready to make his move.

The third reason makes total sense too. Lipstadt actually says fairly little about Irving in Denying the Holocaust. Others--non-American, non-Jewish--had already said more. But he obviously wanted his defendant to be Jewish.

But what about the second reason? Why did he want her to be a woman? Luckily I was able to ask this very question in the second Q&A, and Lipstadt's answer was not only long but totally fascinating. In a nutshell, she said something like this: "These things in the 'Basket of Deplorables' usually go together. Someone in the Alt-Right is likely to be a racist and an anti-Semite and a misogynist. In my case, he thought this couldn't really be coming from me because I was 'just a woman.' In other words, he thought I was just 'a front.' Bring me down, and he would bring down the whole Jewish Conspiracy."

Deborah: I hope I got this right. If not, I hope someone will correct me. All I can say is: This made perfect sense to me!!!

The other fascinating topic was, of course, money. She talked about how she raised the money for legal expenses, and she stated emphatically that everything that remained went to Jewish charities. She talked about Abraham and said "Not One Shoelace." Here is the exact section from my Etz Hayim translation:

The invaders seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. (Page 79, Genesis 14:11-12)

When Abram learned that his kinsman [Lot] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers… and went in pursuit… At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them… He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women, and the rest of the people… (Page 80, Genesis 14:14)

Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abram said to the King of Sodom, “I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’” (Page 81 14:21—14:23)


© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/7/16) FF2 Media


Top Photo: Rachel Weisz as Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University... and a "Good Jewish Girl" from Queens 🙂

Middle Photo: Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Bottom: Tom Wilkinson as Barrister Richard Rampton.

Photo Credits: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

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Now playing in NYC. Opens 10/28 in LA. Review coming soon...

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Basically true story of a German Jew who played a major role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann & the subsequent Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials.

A prior German film which also circled around these same topics was, indeed, a "labyrinth of lies." (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

What does a superhero look like?

The main character in the highly lauded 2014 film Labyrinth of Lies—a film about Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials—is a man named “Johann Radman.” Labyrinth of Lies did extremely well on the international film festival circuit, and it was nominated for four prestigious awards by the German Film Academy in 2015 (including Outstanding Feature Film, Best Screenplay and Best Film Score).

To play Radmann, director Giulio Ricciarelli chose actor Alexander Fehling. Seeing Fehling on screen, a man with the face and figure of an Aryan stereotype, was the first thing about Labyrinth of Lies that set off my JewDar. Was I prepared to embrace a hero in a film about the Holocaust who looked like a model for a Hitler Youth propaganda poster?

In fact, the hero of Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials was not Johann Radman (who is a “composite” character), but Fritz Bauer, a very real person who was born in Stuttgart (Germany) in 1903.

In 1933, Bauer was imprisoned in Heuberg Concentration Camp (near Stetten, Germany). Upon his release in 1935, he fled to Denmark, and when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, he fled to Sweden. Bauer returned to Germany in 1949, where he was eventually appointed to office as the District Attorney in Hessen in 1956. He remained in that position, based in Frankfurt, until his death in 1968.

Need I say that in the years he lead the prosecution of Germany’s Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963 to 1965), Bauer was the polar opposite of a strapping young Aryan? To be blunt, Bauer looked like exactly who he was: the epitome of a Jewish stereotype. The real superhero was short, overweight, and unkempt. He was also enormously intelligent and ferociously committed.

If you have seen already Labyrinth of Lies, then you are obligated to see The People vs Fritz Bauer as a corrective. If you have not yet seen Labyrinth of Lies, then don’t. See The People vs Fritz Bauer, and you will be glad that you did.

The plot of The People vs Fritz Bauer actually precedes the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials and is almost entirely concerned with Bauer’s role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann.

Regular readers know that we have gone round and round this Eichmann story several times already together, but this is an entirely new take with essential elements which—to the best of my knowledge—have never been seen on screen before.

And unlike Labyrinth of Lies, which not only trivializes the connection between Bauer and the Mossad, but completely mischaracterizes the Mossad’s parallel search for Joseph Mengele, almost everything in The People vs Fritz Bauer is true to the historical facts as I know them to be.

The exception is the character of “Karl Angermann.” Angermann, the most trusted of Bauer’s associates, is played by actor Ronald Zehrfeld who also starred in Christian Petzold’s recent films Barbara and Phoenix. Remarkably, I barely recognized him. Without his beard, Zehrfeld has a baby face which makes him appear both younger and more innocent (attributes which fit the Angermann character perfectly).

Veteran actor Burghart Klaußner stars as Fritz Bauer. Cinephiles will recognize him from his roles in recent award-winning films like Good Bye Lenin!, The Edukators, and The White Ribbon. The German Film Academy nominated Klaußner for a Best Actor award in 2016 for his performance as Fritz Bauer. (Ironically they also nominated Gert Voss in 2015 for his performance as Fritz Bauer in Labyrinth of Lies, although, of course, his was a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)

One can quibble. Although the screenplay that director Lars Kraume wrote with Olivier Guez is taut, the direction itself is somewhat melodramatic and the soundtrack is abysmal. But in this case, the importance of historical accuracy overrides any purely aesthetic considerations.

I will let Ha’aretz make the case for Fritz Bauer in this quote from a 2012 review of an exhibit on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann at Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv:

“On May 23, 1960, the Mossad representative in Germany received a top-secret cable, stating: ‘Go to Tolstoy immediately and tell him Dybbuk has been captured and taken to Israel.’ ‘Tolstoy’ was the Mossad code name for Dr. Fritz Bauer, the Hessen district attorney. ‘Dybbuk’ was another of the code names for Eichmann. The cable's signatory was Mossad man Shlomo Cohen Abarbanel, brother of Haim Cohen, the Israeli attorney general and subsequently president of the Supreme Court.”


The People vs Fritz Bauer opens Friday, September 2 at Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park and the AMC River East in Streeterville.

For times and tickets at Renaissance Place Cinema, visit:

For times and tickets at the AMC River East, visit:

Follow these links to read more “Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight” reviews of related films:

Hannah Arendt:

The German Doctor:

The Last of the Unjust:

Vita Activa:

(Note that Adolph Eichmann appears on screen at some point in every one of the four films listed above.)

For my rant about films that fall into the "Holocaust Kitsch" genre, see my review of The Book Thief:

(Labyrinth of Lies is not included there because my review of The Book Thief predates its release, but I am clearly adding it to this category now.)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Burghart Klaussner as “Fritz Bauer.”

Bottom Photo: Klaussner with Pierre Shrady as “Eberhard Fritsch.”

Photos courtesy of Cohen Media Group.

Posted on 9/1/16 on JUF Online.

Q: Does The People vs Fritz Bauer pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?


There are very few women in this film, and even then, they exist only on the sidelines. Women barely have any lines of dialogue, and they certainly never converse with one another.

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A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman’s adaptation of the memoir Amos Oz published in 2004.

I consider this film a masterpiece… but you probably won’t hear many other film critics say that. This is no doubt the consequence of two major decisions Portman made as a first-time filmmaker. First, she decided to focus her film on Oz's mother Fania (casting herself in the role of a beautiful woman who killed herself when her young son was barely twelve years old). Second, she decided to use Hebrew--the language of the Amos Oz original--rather than film in English.

Again, I applaud both of these decisions... but most audience members may well disagree. One story of displacement--in an era of mass migration--has been documented with precision because this one woman had a son committed to telling it. But as the title makes clear, it is very tough stuff. (JLH: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman’s adaptation of the memoir Amos Oz published in 2004. Portman wrote, directed, and stars as Fania Mussman, the mother of a boy originally named Amos Klausner who would grow up to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

After a world premiere in May 2015 at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, A Tale of Love and Darkness opened in Israel, and then played at multiple international film festivals (including Beijing, Nashville, and Toronto). I saw it for the first time in January (2016) at the New York Jewish Film Festival. I saw it a second time at a critics screening here in New York last month.

I consider this film a masterpiece… but you probably won’t hear many other film critics say that. I am sure it is opening in theaters in the USA now because the distributors are hoping for Oscar nominations, but I doubt there will be any. Even though it was filmed in Hebrew with a predominately Israeli cast, it was not especially well-received by the Israel Film Academy which announced nominees for the 2016 Ophir Awards (aka “the Israeli Oscar”) last week.

As the title makes clear, this is a very downbeat story. The narrator is an old man (Amos Oz himself as played by actor Alexander Peleg) who has spent a lifetime trying to understand the still incomprehensible fact that his beautiful mother killed herself when he was barely twelve years old.

From the many strands of this dense book, Portman has braided together three. The first is the story of two people – a woman from Poland and a man from Lithuania – who both moved to Mandate Palestine just before the start of World War II, only to learn soon after that almost everyone and everything they knew had been obliterated in the Holocaust. The second is the related story of their attempt to build a new life together in the Promised Land, only to discover that their “land of milk and honey” was a rainy, chilly, embattled Jerusalem, quickly engulfed by the flames of Israel’s War of Independence. The third focuses on one boy who had these parents and lived at this time, seeking to ferret out the earliest indications of the artist he would one day become.

Since the memoir is well over 500 pages in length, A Tale of Love and Darkness could have been adapted for the screen in many different ways, but this was clearly something of an obsession for Portman. Like Oz himself, she wanted to know why Fania killed herself. I suspect the answer to this question will always be elusive in every case, but I was deeply moved by the depths to which Portman plunged, and I say this as someone who was dismayed by the plot-driven suicides of female Holocaust survivors in three recent films from Europe (Ida, Phoenix, and Sarah’s Key).

Fania Mussman was raised in a prominent Polish family, so even though she was Jewish, she expected a genteel life. As the prettiest of three sisters, she assumed she would always be cared for and protected. Arriving in the Yishuv as a teenager, she was filled with romantic idealism. But learning that everyone she had grown up with was now gone trapped her in an emotional vise. On the one hand Fania knew she was lucky to be alive, but on the other hand, she also knew that just being alive did not, in itself, make her as “happy” like she always thought she would be.

Fania tries so hard. The strain of her constant effort to be “normal” is exhausting to watch. But that is all her young son Amos (Amir Tessler) can do, watch helplessly as his fragile mother struggles day-by-day to keep going. No one else will even acknowledge the problem, certainly not his father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) or any of the family members on either side. The only person who appears to have any empathy for this family of three is his father’s friend Israel Zarchi (Ohad Knoller). But since Zarchi was a novelist/poet also afflicted with melancholia, his profession was to see what others were determined to avoid.

All of the technical elements of A Tale of Love and Darkness are superb. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is elegant, especially in the many sequences in which Fania weaves strange bedtime stories that transport her son to the edge of mysticism. The production design by Arad Sawat, and set design by Noa Roshovsky and Salim Shehade (who have worked on some of my favorite recent Israeli movies including A Place in Heaven, Footnote, and Restoration) combine to perfectly evoke both the mundane and the magical. Casting director Hila Yuval clearly knows everyone who is anyone, and highly-regarded Israeli actors who are used to playing major roles add depth to tiny parts for Portman’s sake.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is one story of displacement, documented with precision because this one woman had a son who wanted to tell her story and was finally able to do so after years of inner torment. But now Fania speaks for displaced people everywhere. Stop and think for a moment about how it might feel to lose everything you know, end up on some foreign shore, and then try to keep living “your” life. This is clearly one of the most important issues of our era, and something with which we—as Jews—are intimately familiar. We have been displaced time and again. We know the benefits, now we must also acknowledge the costs.

As Portman says in her “Filmmaker Letter” on the Landmark website: “The immigrant experience of idealizing the place you’re going to before you get there, and idealizing the place you’ve left once you’re gone, is something many of us can relate to. And the way the young Amos translates that longing into art through storytelling, gives us something to aspire to.”

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens at the Landmark Theatre at Renaissance Place in Highland Park on Friday August 19. I strongly urge you to ignore everything else you may hear about this film, listen only to me, see it on a big screen, and make up your own mind. For schedule information, visit the Landmark website.

Posted 8/18/16 in JUF Online.

Q: Does A Time of Love and Darkness pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes... but barely.

The film is constrained by Amos's POV, and he has minimal understanding of his mother's interactions with other women. However, we do come to understand that her relationships with both her mother and her mother-in-law were fraught, and her two sisters, though they clearly loved her, were unwilling to get overly involved in "her problems" (however severe they ultimately revealed themselves to be).

Most of the time, Fania is either stoic or silent. The only time she weeps openly is when a friend is shot by a sniper while hanging her laundry. These two scenes--of one woman cut down in a moment of such pure innocence and another woman bereft when she learns of the loss--are two of the most shocking and heart-rending scenes in the film. And yet, even then, life went on...

People in such dire situations--of war and displacement--have little patience with mental illness. If they tell themselves Fania is merely "spoiled," then they don't have to accept any personal responsibility for her fate. And really? Who can blame them?

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unnamed-2Now, less than a century since the Holocaust, already the memory has seemed to fade, dimming for those who only hear about it as part of a broader history lesson. In Three Days in Auschwitz, writer/director Philippe Mora attempts to bring the atrocities of the Holocaust, particularly the horrific murders that took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau, back to life, as a stark reminder that we must never allow the world to forget. (EML: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

A slow, somber acoustic guitar plays as a Joseph Goebbel quote scrolls across the screen. The impact is instantaneous, just the white text against the black screen and the weight of what will be explored is already felt. Using drawn artwork, historical photo and video footage, as well as modern footage of tourists visiting the now abandoned Auschwitz, writer/director Philippe Mora uses everything at his disposal to make the memory of what happened to those forced to live (and mostly die) at Auschwitz, as vivid as possible for his audience.

The documentary moves away from the actual visual representation of Auschwitz in favor of intimate interviews with Mora in his office and a restaurant. Mora starts to describe his personal relationship to the Holocaust and Auschwitz. As an artist, Mora’s journey to understand and make sense of the atrocities is focused primarily on his painting. He describes an image he painted of himself in conversation with Hitler, as well as his depiction of Hitler’s moment of decision to decimate the Jewish population of Europe. It is Mora’s artwork that becomes the focal point of the storytelling, using score and Mora’s painted images to try and give the audience the same mindset as the filmmaker.

Next Mora travels to his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, searching for answers. He interviews family members, survivors of the Holocaust, allowing them to share their stories, their memories, their experiences.

From Melbourne, Mora travels to Auschwitz where he provides facts on the horrors that took place. Mora follows a tour group, walking around the vast property and seeing the dilapidated and destroyed buildings that once took the lives of over a million. In many areas, the buildings are merely marked by ropes and ruins, providing only a glimpse of the stature and immensity that the place must once have been.unnamed-3

From Auschwitz, Mora goes to the Holocaust museum of London. Though he says he isn’t allowed to film inside, he still takes his camera with him as he tours the museum. Most striking to him, and most reassuring, is the presence of children, ensuring that another generation will keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and hopefully keep such an event from happening again.

Despite its best intentions, Three Days in Auschwitz fails to engage the audience as it intends. Firstly, Mora’s introspective approach to the filmmaking makes the audience feel like an intruder or an outsider, rather than a part of the storytelling. While Mora’s intense personal connection to his subject matter makes his passion all the more evident, it almost becomes selfish as he repeatedly discusses why he, as a filmmaker, wants to tell this story, rather than using the film purely to pay homage and respect to the victims of one of the world’s greatest crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Mora’s use of his own artwork serves only to enhance the vanity of the endeavour. In many ways, with the addition of the artwork, Mora’s film begins to feel more like a therapy session rather than an engaging film.

Secondly, the film overuses its score and attempts to use the musical accompaniment to try and elicit an emotional response, rather than doing so through visuals and storytelling. The reliance on the music makes the film feel very amateur and allows the audience’s attention to wander, making it difficult to remain engaged with the film.

Lastly, the filming style, while likely geared at creating closeness and intimacy with the interview subjects, instead makes the film feel amateur. Fish-eye lens shots, selfie handheld shots, and strange angles all contribute to a feeling of thrown togetherness that pushes the audience out of the story. This coupled with repeated use of scrolling quotes, create a sense of a school assignment or a travel diary rather than a theatrical film.

In the end, Mora says it best himself, Three Days in Auschwitz is less a film than it is “cinematic notes.” Often disjointed, failing to tell an overarching story, relying on gimmicks to provide an emotional response rather than storytelling, and using amateur filming tactics, the film feels more like a personal history report than a seasoned filmmaker’s retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (9/7/16)unnamed

Top Photo: The poster for Philippe Mora’s Three Days in Auschwitz, featuring an original painting by Mora of Hitler’s face.

Middle Photo: Mora takes a selfie outside the infamous gate to Auschwitz.

Bottom Photo: A self-portrait painted by Mora expressing his emotional state at the outset of creating the film.
Photo Credits: Needle and Associates 

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pic1Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness explores the psychological toll on those who find life to fall short of their expectations. Utilizing language, location and raw emotional acting performances, Portman creates an atmosphere as much as she tells a story, leaving the audience with a sense of longing and a thirst for questioning by the film’s end. (EML: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Set against the backdrop of the formation of the state of Israel,  A Tale of Love and Darkness explores the relationship between hopes and actualities. Told from a reflective perspective, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut follows the young “Amos Oz” (Amir Tessler) as he watches his mother, “Fania” (Natalie Portman) struggle with crippling depression.

Fania, a Holocaust survivor who always dreamed of living in the land of Israel, finds herself disappointed with the reality of her life in the Promised Land. Rather than finding love with the idealized farmer / poet / rebel that she had envisioned, Fania finds herself married to an aspiring writer, “Arieh” (Gilad Kahana). Rather than living a glamorous, happy life, far from the hellish experiences of her upbringing in Eastern Europe during World War II, Fania finds herself surrounded by the horrors of war once again as Israel fights for its independence. Fania’s struggle to accept her reality in spite of her expectations, lead her to experience both physical and psychological pain.

Amos watches as Fania becomes more and more despondent, wracked with headaches that leave her silent and stoic, staring out the window. The woman who once told him bedtime stories, now can barely get out of bed. Meanwhile, Amos struggles with his own coming of age and finds himself beginning to notice the cracks in the perfect facade of dreams.

At its core, A Tale of Love and Darkness asks us to question the nature of wishing, of hoping, of dreaming. Each of the characters struggles, in their own wpic3ay, to reconcile what they had hoped would be true for themselves with what is actually true. While Fania’s break is the most severe, Amos’ journey demonstrates those early instances of discrepancy between expectation and reality. For instance, while at a family friend’s office, Amos sees the copies of his father’s first book, which Arieh had recently celebrated selling out of, on the bookshelf. In that moment, Amos is forced to, in a small way, understand that life does not always turn out as expected, and even when things seem to be going well, it may all be a lie.

Though there are some moments where Portman’s newness to directing shows, predominantly in the constant and abrupt fades to black, the film is visually stunning and delivers an emotional rawness that enhances the storytelling. This is not just the story of a mother and son, or the story of hardships of creating the nation of Israel. This is a story about the fears that lay within all of us that life will not be what we had hoped it will be and that we will not be able to cope.

One of the stronger, deliberate choices in Portman’s filmmaking comes in the choice of language. While the film perhaps would’ve felt more universal delivered in English, the use of Hebrew creates an additional character to the narrative that parallels the struggles played out by the actors on the screen.

For thousands of years, Hebrew served purely as a religious language, used for reciting prayer and Torah. With the establishment of the state of Israel, suddenly Hebrew needed to develop into a conversational language. As words were created to describe the mundane, Hebrew became both the language to speak to G-d and the language to speak to your neighbor. The language itself became both the heightened and the mundane, the promise and the reality.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a movie that makes you think and makes you dream. Though Amos seems to assert that fulfilling a dream will only lead to disappointment, there is no denying that dreams themselves are often what keep us going. In a modern world where Israel remains at the forefront of international news, often in a negative light, A Tale of Love and Darkness reminds us that though the dream of the land of Israel may not be perfect, it is still a dream worth believing in and fighting for.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (8/31/16)pic2Top Photo: A poster for A Tale of Love and Darkness, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut.

Middle Photo: Fania (Portman), Arieh (Gilad Kahana), and Amos (Amir Tessler), wait in the crowd as the UN votes on the establishment of the state of Israel.

Bottom Photo: A tortured Fania tries to reassure her young son Amos (Amir Tessler).

Photo Credits: Ran Mendleson (via Focus World)

Q: Does A Tale of Love and Darkness pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes, but...

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