We don’t give enough credit to Jewish filmmakers who use their craft to push forward a forceful message about Jewish life today. So many important films are being made today, and Jewish film festivals across the world are thankfully providing wonderful platforms for their screening.
However, I specifically want to laud the work done by four moviemakers this past year that merit your attention.
I just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, where I was fortunate enough to be at the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “The Fablemans.” Spielberg, working with Tony Kushner, drew on his childhood growing up first in South Jersey, then Arizona and Northern California, where he was pretty much the only Jew at his high school. Antisemitism was very much present in the school, and teenaged Steven was terrorized, beaten up, and even proselytized. Young Spielberg never complained, nor did he hide his Jewishness. Now, with this powerful, largely autobiographical film, he finally has had his chance to put what he felt like to be bullied as a Jewish teenager on the screen.
Many of us who grew up in urban Jewish areas may not have experienced antisemitism, but it was indeed rampant throughout the country before and after World War II, and sadly it is on the upsurge again. The grand master of cinema was unafraid to tell this story to a world that needs to better understand the ugliness of prejudice.
Thirty years ago, in “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg confronted Jew-hatred in Europe; now he is revealing its insidious metastases in the United States.
Barry Levinson told his family’s story in his 1990 autobiographical film “Avalon.” Though a viewer clearly could sense a Jewish layer, critics challenged him for keeping it largely offscreen. Nine years later, he followed up with “Liberty Heights,” reflecting his growing-up years in Baltimore. This time, the writer/director sets his story over the course of a Jewish calendar year in 1954-55. We see how the two boys in the film confront antisemitism. At first, they’re squeamish about bringing attention to the fact that they are Jewish. Levinson shows how the civil rights movement and events of the day pushed the boys to take pride in being Jewish, not hide it, and meet intolerance head-on. Now, Levinson’s “The Survivor” is being screened on HBO Max. In it, he pushes the question of prejudice one step further, as he made a film about a concentration camp inmate who survives the war and makes his way here, a country that should be void of antisemitism. In conversation, Levinson told me how deeply impacted he was as a teen when his mother’s brother Simka, a bereft survivor of the Shoah, came to stay with his family and shared his room. Each night, Simka would scream; he was having a nightmare. Levinson’s latest film, an ode to Simka, examines what it is to be a Jew in the modern world.
Now, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, teaming up with Ken Burns, have brought us the brilliant three-part documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” that is being broadcast over the next several weeks on PBS. Their examination of the Shoah and U.S. policy toward Jews in the first half of the 20th century is thorough and exhaustive. Why were immigration laws that intentionally limited Eastern and Southern Europeans put in place in the early 1920s? Why did the United States fail to allow more Jews to immigrate when the urgency presented itself in the late 1930s? What did we know here about European Jewry under the Nazis and what did we do or not do? How proactive was our State Department in limiting and blocking visa applications?
As the filmmakers show us, one such failed visa request came from Otto Frank, on behalf of himself, his wife, and their daughters, Margot and Anne. For Botstein, whose grandparents fled to Switzerland before the war and arrived here only afterward, this film was a particularly important project. The film gave Novick the incentive finally to visit Israel. These two women infuse this outstanding documentary with heart, clarity, and clear messaging. You may not agree with all the conclusions put forward by the exceptional historians, but as Botstein told with me, it’s “all the better to have a discussion.”
These four filmmakers have made films that draw from the past but are relevant for the present. We live in foreboding and frightening times in our country. Cinema has sch an important role to play in impacting society. I hope that these films will help prevent the repetition of the unspeakable. These filmmakers deserve our deepest thanks for what they continue to do.
Eric A. Goldman of Teaneck is host of “Jewish Cinematheque,” televised and streamed on the Jewish Broadcasting Service (jbstv.org). He is an adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.