Notes from the New York Film Festival
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Notes from the New York Film Festival

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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A scene from “The Last of the Unjust.”

Sadly, no Israeli films are being screened this year at the New York Film Festival. These past few years, we were blessed with such strong works as “Fill the Void,” “Footnote,” and “Gatekeepers.” This year, Nazareth-born Hany Abu-Assad, representing the Palestinian Territories, returns to the festival with “Omar,” a powerful thriller about love, betrayal and the walls that separate people. Abu-Assad, whose film, “Paradise Now” about two friends who are recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, played the Festival in 2005, won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film that year and was nominated for an Oscar.

“Omar” is just as powerful as his 2006 film, and though you might tremble when seeing the torture scenes – just as you might have when watching Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” last year – you appreciate the mastery of this very talented filmmaker.

There will only be two screenings, tonight at 6 and tomorrow at 3, so Sabbath-observant Jews will have to wait until it opens in the theaters. I will provide a fuller analysis then.

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The master filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” was screened on the festival’s first day. Lanzmann, who brought us the Holocaust classic “Shoah,” has returned to the hundreds of hours of footage he shot in the mid-1970s for “Shoah.” He has pulled from that horde remarkable material that simply could not be worked into 1985’s 9½-hour masterpiece.

“The Last of the Unjust” is a look at Benjamin Murmelstein, the Austrian rabbi who was appointed head of the Jewish Council of Elders at Theresienstadt. Murmelstein, the third Jew to hold the position, survived the war, was accused of collaborating, and was released after eighteen months because there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Murmelstein provides some interesting insights and relates how difficult such a position, working with the Nazis, indeed was. Interestingly, as filmmakers continue to ponder the Holocaust, this look at what was right and what was wrong – how a person should act or refuse to act in the midst of such horror – makes for a very powerful study. The master has done it again.

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Interestingly, both “Omar” and “The Last of the Unjust” deal with the question of collaboration, but in very different ways. The New York Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, remains one of the best cultural events of the year. It includes retrospectives of the work of Jean-Luc Godard and tributes for actors Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.

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