Sunday 11 November 2012

More from the Jewish Film Festival - Life in Stills and Lore

The UK Jewish Film Festival has now reached its half-way point and this weekend included some excellent screenings. I managed to see two of them.

Czech born Rudi Weissenstein is responsible for some of the most recognisable photographs in the history of pre-state and post independence Israel. Together with his wife, Miriam, also born in the former Czechoslovakia, he ran a successful photographic business - The Photo House in central Tel Aviv until his death in 1992, after which Miriam carried on until her death in 2011 at the age of 98. Life in Stills - a wonderful documentary made by Tamar Tal, records her fight to retain her shop in the face of a new development which would include demolition of the building it occupies.

The film is only partly about Miriam's struggle to ensure this piece of Tel Aviv's history is preserved. It is also a love story. Miriam's grandson, Ben runs the business with her, trying to modernise it with a website, overseas exhibitions and changing displays in the shop. Miriam is not keen on modernity. They often disagree, they sometimes row, but he remains infinitely patient and the love, mutual respect and the closeness between them is obvious.

There are moments of extreme sadness in the film. They find it hard to discuss the appalling tragedy that befell them a few years earlier, when Ben's father killed his wife (Miriam's daughter) before killing himself, yet both have an urgent need and desire to talk about it.

There are also many moments of humour. A great deal of Miriam's grumpiness is (I think) tongue in cheek and for her own entertainment, describing the customers as "pests" or "a pain in the ass" depending on which translation you prefer. She is particularly amusing when on a trip to Germany to promote an exhibition, she recreates a photograph of many years earlier - lying on her back in the snow (aged 96) - and when asked to say something, comes out with "hurry up". I can't think of many 96 year olds who would have been willing or able to lay down in the snow for any purpose but this illustrates the toughness and determination of the film's heroine - and also of many men and women of her generation who helped recreate the thriving modern state of Israel. Very few of them remain.

I am lucky enough to own a small number of prints of Rudi Wasserstein's photographs. I couldn't resist including my favourite of his images here - fishermen off the Jaffa coast in 1967, together with a picture of Rudi and Miriam outside their shop.

Life in Stills is a beautiful, bitter-sweet hour of cinema - the most enjoyable I have spent in some time and moves the viewer quickly from smile to tears and back again. I hope it gets a wider release. I want to see it again.

The other movie I saw this weekend was Lore - a German/ Australian production based on a story by award wining author Rachael Seifert. The story is that of a young German girl - Hannelore - the Lore of the title and her younger siblings making an epic journey across a devastated Germany in the dying days of the Second World War and in the aftermath. The children of committed Nazis, we see how effective the training of German children in this period was with the distasteful looks Lore gives to the son a farmer whom she is asking for food when she notices that he has a physical disability.

Lore fervently believes that a "total victory" for Germany is imminent, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, including the increasingly strange and frightening behaviour of her parents. This belief starts to fall apart as the children make their way across the country to find their grandmother. The portrayal of a society in total moral collapse is shocking as the actions of many Germans during the war period begin to be exposed, discussed and also denied. We see an elderly woman helping the children, although grudgingly and then wanting to keep Lore's youngest charge, baby brother, Peter, in order to receive more rations. We see sexual predators praying on the weak in return for the slightest help and we see those with entrenched views beginning the great denial of the Holocaust and other crimes that continues to today in some quarters.

Lore and the children meet a young man on their journey - Thomas - who may or may not be Jewish and although she at first rejects his offers of help, she comes to depend on them, struggling with the conflict between what she has learned about the Jews and what she is experiencing. There is a certain irony in this - but you will need to see the film to understand it!

Rachael Seiffert was present and took part in a question and answer session following the screening. She explained that her grandparents had been Nazi party members and had been interned following the war. Her grandmother appears to have been involved in looking after mothers and children who had lost their homes following heavy bombing raids. For a short time this was suspected to be part of the lebensborn programme of stealing "aryan" looking children fro the conquer countries. However, this was quickly disproved. Her grandfather was a doctor in the Waffen SS in Belarus. Ms. Seiffert described the conflict for many Germans of her generation, between the shame of knowing what their families had been involved in and the love they felt for them as relatives. She was extremely impressive - not flinching from or side stepping questions from what must have been a difficult audience for her. She was clearly affected by the experience and many in the audience obviously warmed to her.

Technically the film was excellent. The cinematography was beautiful - with several scenes of deep green valleys with delicate white clouds, as well as dark scenes of thick mud and devastation as the film progresses, perhaps showing both the journey that Germany had chosen, beginning with the romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries and ending in dark mud and filth of the 1930's and 1940's.

Finally, a word about Saskia Rosendahl the young (born in 1993) German actress who played the lead role of Lore. She was excellent and totally convincing in the role, taking both her siblings and herself on both a physical and a moral journey. The film has already scooped awards and nominations. Definitely one to see if it gets a wider release.

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