AFTER AUSCHWITZ – movie review

AFTER AUSCHWITZ

Bala Cynwyd Productions
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon Kean
Screenwriter: Jon Kean
Cast: Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, Linda Sherman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/28/18
Opens: April 20, 2018

After Auschwitz Poster

Only those inmates who entered the Nazi concentration camps at a youthful age are still alive today. Very young boys and girls were generally gassed as useless to the German war machine. The six brave women who populate Jon Kean documentary were about 18-23 years old when they entered Auschwitz. Some died since the making of this film and, as they say, time is running out. We cannot learn first-hand about the experiences of survivors for much longer, though thanks to the magic of celluloid, their testimonies will be with us forever.

Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman were mostly from Eastern Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. One was from Holland. They discuss in part their experiences in 1945 after the British or the Russians liberated them, but most of the doc deals with their lives in the West, particularly the USA. Still it bears mentioning that the country that is supposed to be a haven for people who are yearning to breathe free was not too eager to issue visas given the anti-Semitism allegedly present in our own State Department.

The one theme that runs through the experiences of the six women is that after they were freed from the camps, they could not return to their homes in Eastern Europe. Their property had been taken over by the locals and in some cases fellow Czechs dragged survivors through the streets, blaming Jews for the black market and yelling that they will never again see their living quarters.

After a stay in Displaced Persons camps, many went on to New York and California, though the film is not clear how they dug up the money for flights, which were more expensive then than they are now. These women, bless them, might be able to sustain an 83 minute film by talking to the cameras, but thankfully archival clips take over about half of the running time, shifting back to the camps during the week of liberation where bodies, thousands of them, are piled up unburied. Destruction in Germany as we see here was so immense that Hitler’s order to destroy Berlin did not have to be carried out. That was presumably one command that the generals ignored from the madman.

The women traveled around by train, and terrific archival shots show people riding on the top and on the sides of the carriers as though hoboes during the Depression or perhaps the way some in India travel third-class or even lower.

All the new residents of the USA are pleased with the culture here, except for one who was urged to try Coca-Cola. She drank a glass, and that was the last time for her. Others went to the wider spaces of California. They married, had kids and grandkids. Some gave talks to classes in Hebrew school to youngsters kept in the dark by their parents, though despite the need the women have to teach others so that “it will happen never again,” they do not want to be obsessed with the bad times of the past. What shocks them most is that we haven’t learned. Just mention Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Armenia. And as nations fall to right wing authoritarians today, we are bound to be faced by similar tragedies—to say nothing of the possibility of the extinction of humanity in a nuclear war.

Jon Kean wrote and directs, a man whose “Swimming in Auschwitz” featured six women who kept their spirits and their faith alive during their months in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His “Kill the Man” describes the adventures of men who try to keep their company afloat while being stressed by the competition and by a visit from a thug.

Unrated. 83 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

SUNSET – movie review

SUNSET (Napszállta)
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lázló Nemes
Screenwriter: Lázsló Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier
Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Levente Molnr, Julia Jakubowska
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/31/19
Opens: TBD

Poster

The 1950s in America may be looked upon as perhaps the dullest decade of the 20th century but it was also the most prosperous. Politics then were relatively stable. In fact the biggest complaint about the two major political parties is that they were so much alike you could not tell them apart:like tweedeledum and tweedledee. How we wish that were true nowadays when not only the U.S. is divided (Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote), but also Europe with its Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism, the politics of hate. With “Sunset,” Lázló Nemes unfolds an epic tale about even worse divisions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, placing the drama in 1913 when the world’s first all-encompassing war was brewing. While the tale, told exclusively through the eyes of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), tunes us into both the active and brewing violence in Budapest, we in the audience cannot be blamed for being confused as to the motives of the gun-wielding participants. At first we figure that the mayhem is based on class warfare: the masses of have-nots resenting the upper-bourgeois merchants whose products cater to the tastes of the aristocracy in the Austrian capital of Vienna. However, given that director Nemes’ previous offering, “Son of Saul,” opened through the point of view of inmate Saul, an Auschwitz prisoner made to bury the bodies of the murdered Jews, we can surmise that there is a Jewish theme in “Sunset” as well.

Here’s why. The backstory of “Sunset,” or “Napszállta in the original Hungarian, is that a high-class milliner’s store is burned to the ground, its two owners perishing in the flames. This looks like a foreshadowing of the Kristallnacht, when in 1938 Nazi thugs broke windows of Jewish-owned businesses, torched synagogues, raided Jewish homes and killed one hundred German-Jewish citizens. You may, of course, have a different interpretation: Nemes, not one to spoon feed the audience, will never tell.

Because of the director’s regard for the intelligence of his audiences, he gives us but an outline of the activities and bursts of anarchy in Budapest on the eve of war. At the same time, given that the film is 144 minutes long, coupled with that deliberate lack of clarity as to motivations of the warring groups, some prospective filmgoers will be exasperated. And others, like me, will be absorbed throughout.

As Leiter (a predominantly Jewish name), Jakab performs as a woman alone traveling from Trieste to Budapest in search of employment in her parents’ store but also following up a rumor that her brother Kálmán (also a Yiddish given name shortened from the Greco-Jewish name Kalonymos, or קלונימוס) can be located there. She never smiles but wears a fierce, determined look as anyone would while negotiating through the personalities of several men, in one instance almost the victim of gang rape. She seeks employment in the millenery establishment that had been owned by her parents but is now under the proprietorship of Oszkár Brill (the Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov). Though Brill does not hire her, he takes her under his wing as the city faces raids by outlaws, though most of the beatings and shootings take place off the set. (Correction: the action does not take place in a set as the director, fearing the loss of individuality and even a humane-ness in our digital world, refuses to use such a convention favored by current filmmakers.) Each time she mentions the name of her brother, it’s as though she has uttered an obscenity worthy of 50 lashes.

Though warned to stay close to the shop, she wanders off, crashing into what we today would call chaotic neighborhoods, including a look at Countess Redey’s (Julia Jakubowska) palace. The countess was allegedly driven mad by her husband, whose had implanted her back with evidence of severe whippings. Continuing to wander about she runs into more parlous situations, hopping a tram now and then, not deterred even after she is almost raped. At this point we surmise that the director, using a script from Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier and himself, is using Írisz as an Everyman—the suffix “man” applicable to her given her androgynous look and our vision of her in a concluding scene surrounding by men in trenches.

Györgyi Szakács’s costumes are a high point. Women wear hats that could be used by discus throwers given the size of the head coverings, just as American men in the 50’s all wore Fedoras. Mátyás Erdély films in Hungary, specifically in Budapest and Iszkaszentgyorgy, the dust in the air rarely settling as though the town is a pre-war Beijing. Pay close attention, as though you were Írisz Leiter herself, looking in astonishment at a civilization in decay, preparing for a war that will break up the Austrian Empire, a prelude to the last strains of civilization.

144 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

THE BRINK – movie review

THE BRINK
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alison Klayman
Screenwriter: Alison Klayman
Cast: Steve Bannon
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 2/20/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

Steve Bannon appears in The Brink by Alison Klayman, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Steve Bannon could use bariatric surgery, a better dentist, and a Brooks Brothers overhaul of his wardrobe. None of these flaws takes away from his charm, and remember that even Darth Vader has been called a charmer by the huge crowds that pack theaters when he’s around. He has been picketed around Europe and the U.S. with the same sorts of signs that greet Trump now and then, though a great deal of picketers are not protestors: anything but. As CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, he considers himself virtually the sole reason that Trump was able to thumb his nose at the pollsters. Though fired by the POTUS for a side comment Bannon once made in the book “Fire and Fury,” he claims to be on the president’s direct line, and despite his sendoff shortly after the president’s swearing-in, he maintains that he is still treasured by the man with the long red tie.

Since Bannon is a filmmaker among other diverse traits, it was only natural that he would grant producer Marie Theresa Guirgis the thumbs-up for a film about his ideologies and skills at communicating them. Guirgis tapped Alison Klayman to be a fly on the wall, a wise choice as Klayman’s documentary “Ai Wei Wei…Never Sorry” chronicles the trouble the activist has endured from the Chinese government, and “Take Your Pills” puts America’s drug Adderall front and center by people who need the boost to outpace the competition.

That Bannon has been vilified by progressives is no problem for him, in fact he gives the impression that he’d agree with the view that the only bad publicity is no publicity. More specifically, he believes that every time he is trashed by progressives at demonstrations picked up by the media, he gains prominence. Therein lies his welcome of director Klayman, who allegedly spent well over one hundred hours following him around, both in the U.S. and Europe. The best part of the doc is not a rehash of what we already know about him, but the ways he acts informally when nobody but his “fly” is around to capture both his manic moods and his frustrations.

Aside from the idiosyncrasy of wearing two shirts everywhere he goes and, when filming himself with another gent and a woman tells the woman that she is a rose between two thorns, he probably won’t strike you as either an intellectual or a fellow who can easily one-up his company with his wit; and in fact he appears awkward when he speaks to large crowds. Nor does he hesitate to repeat his views before groups of progressives who in one scene loudly boo him, telling them “I have a whole night to convert you.” His attempted conversion leads to a non-hostile laugh from the crowd.

What is his goal? Well, Winston Churchill stated that his goal is victory; victory at all costs; victory in spite of all terror.” Bannon smells victory, a strong smell at that, when Trump (thanks to him) won the presidency against all odds. He is a one-note politician, a nationalist, a populist, who insists that he cares not what is your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preferences. Nationalism is generally defined as identification with your own nation to the exclusion of the interests of other countries. In concrete terms, he wants America for Americans, considering that people who come here illegally should be sent back to where they came from, and even better, to prevent them from crossing the border in the first place. He travels to France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, in each case beating the drum for the candidates who want to seal the borders or severely restrict immigration. He believes that high walls make good neighbors and supports Trump’s call to take money needed for schools away from going for more schools for the children of the military.

Given his rah rah USA beliefs, we wonder why he is so motivated to further the interests of far right parties outside his country–in Europe such as the Italian League, The Brothers of Italy, Alternatives for Germany, Spain’s vox, and others, nor does the documentary probe deeply enough into why it’s important for him, a nationalist-minded American, to embrace the ideologies of other states. He does get creds for calling persecutions or Jews and others at Auschwitz, which he visited, a horror. Again, he denies that he is a racist, but then Minister Farrakhan says he is no anti-Semite. Groups like the neo-Nazi bunch—remember, the fine people on that side—eagerly brag that they want a country exclusively of white Christians, but for others, those who are regularly in front of the cameras, that is a no-no. Bannon, in fact, would like to deny that he had dinner with Filip Dewinter of Belgium’s racist party, but thanks to Ms. Klayman, we have documentation.

Don’t look for Michael Moore moments but you will, instead, get to know more about Bannon than you could otherwise find in “Darth Vader” sound bites and press releases. As for the title of the movie, President Lincoln noted in a letter “We are now on the brink of destruction,” Lincoln said. It appears to me that even the Almighty is against us. I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Hmmm.

93 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

SOBIBOR – movie review

SOBIBÓR
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Konstantin Khabenskiy
Screenwriter: Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein, Ilya Vasiliev, based on the book by Ilya Vasiliev: “Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough to Immortality”
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

If you travel to Poland, you will do well to take the day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, certainly not because there is entertainment to be found there but because the most notorious death camp and its promotion by Germany is part of what is now called grief tourism. The German government has been surprisingly transparent in its vast campaign of owning up what the Nazi government did to the Jews they arrested, most of whom either died in the camps or were summarily shot on location. If the camp at Sobibór is not among the most visited camps today ,it is because unlike with Auschwitz, the Nazis government tore down the camp in 1943 after a dramatic escape by prisoners, making it part of the adjoining forest.

Konstantin Khabenskiy, who directs and stars in “Sobibór” takes on the role of the actual hero, Alexander Pechersky, who led one of the only two successful escapes from concentration camps, standing in as one answer to naïve accusations such as “Why didn’t the Jews do more to fight against the enemy?” Obviously given the way that the guards at the camps crushed not only the spirit of the inmates but did their best to work them to death, Jews were generally in no condition to put up a fight. Given this situation, you can’t blame Russia for commemorating the heroic uprising led by Pechersky, though under an anti-Semitic Stalin, information was kept quiet only because the rebellion was led by Jews. Happily things are different now as we witness the box office success of Khabenskiy’s film, which has among the most gory, bloody scenes of chaos month after month involving German officers living on Cognac and laughing at the humiliations they visit upon the poor prisoners.

Ramunus Greicius films entirely in Vilnius County, Lithuania, standing in for the Polish city of Sobibór which lies southeast of both Warsaw and Treblinka, hugging the border with Ukraine. With a cast including scores of Lithuanian extras, Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya’s Vasiliev screenplay based on the book “Alexander Pechersky” by Ilya Vasiliev takes us first to the railway where Jews being resettled have allegedly been treated fairly well on the transport to cover up the goal of the Germans. As they depart, they are told “Welcome to your new life,” but instead, most of the women are forced to strip naked and march into the “showers” only to be gassed with carbon monoxide. The men and women who are kept alive are made busy with sewing and chopping, their hard work met with strange rewards including one attempted rape, nonstop floggings, setting Jews up as horses to run the officers around.

As a result of one attempted escape early on, the officers order one inmate of every group of ten to be shot, to discourage further escapes and to demand that the Jews tell the Nazis of any future plan. Among the prisoners is one kapo who is crueler to his fellow Jews than any German, calling them “kikes,” and bringing clear definition to the term “self-hating Jew.” The camp commandant, Karl Frenzel (Christiopher Lambert) does little to discipline the men, even encouraging them to shoot Jews for sport and, in one instance, to allow Berg (Mindaugas Papinigis) to pour alcohol on one prisoner and set him on fire.

Most of the story deals with life in the camps, which the officers find to their liking being the sadists that they are, nobody forcing restraint while the Jews are beaten so regularly that we wonder how they are able to kill eleven officers, duping them by saying that they have beautiful Parisian leather jackets to show them in their quarters and then stabbing or shooting them. It is only during the final twenty minutes that the actual escape takes place, as prisoners take the pistols and rifles that they capture and make their way into the forest. Slow-motion photography adds drama to the narrative. Regrettably, of the six hundred taking part in the mad dash to freedom, most perished, either killed by guards or exploded in the mine fields surrounding the camp. Only 58 are known to have survived, while some are killed by locals and some by Ukrainian guards.

Because the film so boldly displays the misery dished out to the Jews, who never know whether they would survive the day, it stands as a great tribute to Alexander Pechersky without whose leadership all might have been either killed or too petrified even to attempt escape. English subtitles provided for languages spoken: Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Yiddish

117 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

BYE BYE GERMANY – movie review

BYE BYE GERMANY (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Sam Garbarski
Screenwriter:  Michel Bergmann, Sam Garbarski, based on Michel Bergmann’s “Die Teilacher” and “Machloikes
Cast:  Moritz Bleibtreu, Antje Traue, Tim Seyfi, Mark Ivanir, Anatole Taubman, Hans Low, Pal Macsai, Vaclav Jakoubek
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/7/18
Opens: April 27, 2018
Bye Bye Germany poster
Here are some of the words that turn up in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany.”  Schlemiel, L’Chaim, Tsuris, Shiksa, Schmuck, Tuchis, Meshuga, Mazel.  Do you know what these words mean?  Each is the basis for a little gag in a movie that is loaded with jokes.  If you are not familiar with any of these Yiddish and Hebrew terms, no matter.  You will understand them in context.  Jokey though the film may be, it has serious intentions.  The humor is often dark and ironic, the greatest irony being that 4,000 Jews including the principal character in “Bye Bye Germany” remained in Germany after the war, while most, after a stay in a Displaced Persons camp, took off for America and Palestine (later Israel).

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu), who holds his own throughout the movie as its anchor and hero, is one Jew camps survivor who in 1946 chooses to make a good living selling linens to Germans in Frankfurt.  He is questioned by Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue), who seems suspicious of any Jew who survived internment, and in this case she wants to find out whether Bermann should be punished as a collaborator with the Nazis.  Remember that some Jews were able to live longer than expected in horrific concentration camps like Auschwitz by playing musical numbers to make the condemned think they are going to the shower room and not the gas chambers.  Others, called kapos, were the Jewish police assigned by the Nazis to keep order, and some of them did so with the same brutality as the German officers on duty.  They are considered the lowest form of humanity among the prisoners.  Another way to survive was to entertain the SS, which is the way that Bermann, always ready with a quip to get the commandant (Christian Kmiotek)  in stitches, is valued by the Obersturmbanführer, “even though a Jew.”  This film is Bermann’s story to the special agent, who is skeptical of his claims.  And we in the audience are treated to his backstory, some of which involve embellishments, and some punctuating the way that Bermann, who raises a group of fellow survivors, manages to con some of the non-Jews of Frankfurt into buying his linens.

The story is adapted from the first two books by the German-Swiss novelist Michel Bergmann’s Teilacher trilogy, about a group of Jewish traveling salesmen.

Like the three-legged dog that appears now and then, hobbling along as though scarcely knowing that he is handicapped, Bermann makes the best of his precarious situation together with his partner Holzmann (Mark Ivanir).  In one scam David, who is the son of people who sold linens in a high-end store in Frankfurt until it was burned down, uses the old trick of pretending that a dead soldier had given an order and that his widow would naturally want to accept the linens and pay.  This is not only a way of raising money but also getting revenge on the Germans.  However the most significant vengeance is taken when one salesman, Krautberg (Vaclav Jakoubek), discovers that a man who sells newspapers is the very person who burned down a synagogue, killing Krautberg’s parents. Similarly special agent Sara gets her revenge by interrogating Nazis, a woman who had survived by escaping to American when escape was still a possibility.

Filmed in Luxembourg and Germany by cinematographer Virginia Saint-Martin, “Bye Bye Germany unfolds in a stunningrecreation of 1946 featuring cars with the split front windows that were the best that technology could offer at the same. Given Moritz Bleibtreu’s convincing, humorous, and poignant performance, a man whose roles in works like Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” a super-fast paced movie about a woman who has to raise a large sum of money within 20 minutes), is pitch perfect.

In German with English subtitles.

Unrated.  101 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical –B+
Overall – B+