WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY – movie review

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Roberta Grossman
Screenwriter: Roberta Grossman, Samuel Kassow from Kassow’s book “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto”
Cast: Jowitz Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, Piotr Jankowski, Wojciech Zielinski, Karolina Gruzka, Bartlomiej Kotschedoff, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/1/19
Opens: January 18, 2019

Who Will Write Our History Large Poster

We in the U.S. are living now in a time that the printed word has been downgraded, where texting and sexting are the language of youth, and where the New York Times is denigrated by our country’s chief office holder as “failing” and full of “fake news.” How refreshing it is, then, that a film and the book from which it is adapted honors the word, whether in English, or Yiddish, or Hebrew or Polish. “Who Will Write our History” commemorates and even idolizes a few remarkable people shut inside the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi conquest of Poland who dedicated the rest of their brief, remaining lives to writing an archive of material. The material, mostly of the printed word, includes some pictures, so that people in London could be made aware of the delivering of Polish Jewish into a gated neighborhood ghetto followed by their mass murder. The sixty thousand pages of first-person testimony were buried after the ghetto and, indeed, much of the entire city was burned to the ground and found only recently by groups of workers with some documentation presumably buried under the Chinese Embassy in Poland’s capital.

Using archival film taken mostly by Nazis who, by photographing Jews wasting away with starvation and afflicted with lice and disease, employed the films as propaganda to show the world that the Jews are filthy and lice-infected—as though the heartless conquering people had nothing to do with their miserable and desperate condition. The source material, from Samuel Kassow’s book “Who Will Write our History,” cannot be faulted as the author, who lectures on Russian and Jewish history, received a commentary from the New Republic magazine “May be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read.” (Available from Amazon for $17.04.)

The documentary mixes in contemporary footage in full color as actors taking the parts of journalists, scholars and community leaders who go about their secret work of writing voluminous accounts of the greatest crime of the last century. Emanuel Ringelblum was the leader of the group, a historian who gave the project the code name of Oyneg Shabes, determined to puncture German lies with the pen while lacking the sword—at least until the uprising of those Jews remaining in the ghetto on April 19, 1943.

The project is directed, written and produced by Roberta Grossman, whose passion for social justice is easily understood by looking at her previous works. “Seeing Allred,” which she co-directed, takes on the recent testimony of sexual assaults, while her “Hava Nagila” is a virtual travelogue of the famous Jewish song. For this film she employs the voice of Joan Allen, whose narrative offerings include “Rickover: the Birth of Nuclear Power” Catherine Senesh from a movie about Hannah Senesh, who was captured by the Nazis while trying to rescue Jews during the war. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, narrator Adrien Brody used his narrative voice in the past as the mouse in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Focusing on the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabes archive, writer-director Grossman honors the determination of writers to become eyewitnesses to the destructive criminality of the Nazis, indicting the Jewish police as well for their desire to save their lives by treating other Jews with the same brutality as the Germans. What emerges from the writings is not simply a narrative history, as the sixty writers also knocked

out diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs. Most significant is that they depict the Jews from the Jewish point of view so the world should see German propaganda as little more than the lies of a craven people.

This is a major piece of documentary filmmaking, the scholars and filmmakers working for six months to prepare the actual shooting, while the words spoken by the actors are the very words that emerge from the printed material. In 1999 three document collections from Poland were included by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the works of Chopin (ironically enough considering the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism), the works of Copernicus, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Some may argue that the special effects and reenactments threaten the veracity of the material but Grossman makes sure that every word spoken in the recreations, every emotion, boldly supplements the amazing collection of archival celluloid, much of which I for one had never seen before despite my aim to see every film made that tries to make sense of the Holocaust.

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

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

COLD WAR – movie review

COLD WAR (Zimna wajna)

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Screened at: Soho, NYC, 10/25/18
Opens: December 21, 2018

In “Meet Me in Saint Louis” Judy Garland sings: “How can I ignore, the boy next door, I love him more than I can say.” It’s quite possible that most marriages today are between people from the same town, but if you’re European and you don’t like the folks living near you, you can find a mate somewhere else in your country. Or you can go abroad, which is easy enough to do on the Continent. No data exist on whether marriages survive better if you’re with a mate from the same area, though common sense dictates that this is likely true. In the case of “Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” the original Polish title being “Zimna wajna,” the two principal lovers travel considerably, not always the easiest thing to do when you live in Communist Poland in 1949 through 1964. Whether distance makes the heart grow fonder or whether out of sight is out of mind is the rule, these two people show that both proverbs are true.

Pawlikowski, whose best known movie drama “Ida” is about a woman about to take vows and join a nunnery in 1960 but whose plans are disturbed by a surfacing secret about her father, this time spends time not only in Poland but also in Yugoslavia, and France. Communism has an effect on two lovers, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pushing them into locations where they separate, but you can’t blame simply politics for the destruction of a passionate love. These two people are from the same country but they are different sorts who probably could not survive under the same roof for more than two years, notwithstanding their vows of eternal affection.

Despite the fine performances by Joanna Kulig Zula and Tomasz Kot, the best parts of the film take place during the musical concerts, where folk dance performances in costumes of the traditional Poles and similar exhibitions forced by Communist officials to set the mood of land reform and the god-like image of Stalin, are given a respectable amount of time for us to enjoy. While Zula is perfectly willing to conform to the political correctness of the time by remaining with the folk group and doing what the government requires, Wiktor, the pianist and orchestral conductor is disgusted. Though Wiktor and Zula are passionate about each other, the schism begins when they agree to leave the Communist-controlled Poland and go to Paris. He leaves. She stays behind. Thus begins a twenty-year affair during which time she marries an Italian and then a high-ranking Polish official.

They meet and part. They appear in jazz clubs and concerts in Yugoslavia. Wiktor is more of a steady force while Zula is a firebrand. The stage is not set for a Hollywood ending.

The principal problem is that black-and-white photography and an Academy ratio of 1.37:1—representing the width and the length of the screen—may give a period look, but then OK: we get it. It’s 1949. It’s 1960. There is enough atmosphere within the filming to know that this is a period piece. Why compromise the beauty of the Polish folk-dance concerts with shades of gray? Why not have the usual aspect ratio of 2.39:1, giving us in the audience benefit of a wider screen? The dances together with the colorful, harmonic singing would be enough to allow us even to overlook any behavior of the principals that does not rivet us. Still, given the gestalt, a look at the sick requirement of Communism to force works of art into glorifying the state, the fantastic music which includes Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (my favorite R&R song), and the joys and pains of Wiktor and Zula, all combine to make this Poland’s obvious choice to promote for Best Foreign Feature for the 91st Academy Awards show.

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

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