One of this year’s five finalists for the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar was a Holocaust film from Austria called The Counterfeiters which opened in multiple theatres in metro Chicago on February 29. A few weeks ago, I met face-to-face with writer/director Stefan Ruzowitsky. Ruzowitsky knows he has a Jewish sounding name: “I read somewhere that this ‘itsky’ is a Jewish ending, but it didn’t stop my grandparents from becoming Nazis.”
Based on a true story, The Counterfeiters describes the Nazi plan to manufacture fake currency, made, of course, by Jewish concentration camp inmates. “What intrigued me right away when I heard about this story for the first time, I felt right away this is a perspective I haven’t heard before,” Ruzowitsky told me. “When I had written my first draft, I found out that I’d fallen for all these positive clichés–every Jew is wise and cultivated and that kind of stuff. I had the best of intentions, but that’s dangerous because finally it means they’re a different race, even if it’s in a positive way.”
“My idea was to show something different. A counterfeiter in a concentration camp — crook, gangster, jailbird? Yes. And the others are blue collar workers and Prussian bankers, and they just happen to have Jewish ancestors, and that’s it. They were coming from Berlin and Munich and wherever, and they were Germans, not Jews as opposed to Germans.”
Summing up, he said: “I think that in today’s Austria and Germany, even Right Wing politicians would agree that the Holocaust was a huge crime, but they would say: ’The Holocaust was collateral damage, an ugly side effect that shouldn’t have happened. The Nazi ideology is about the beautiful highways, law and order, trains being on time, functional families.’ They wouldn’t see that the Holocaust is actually the essence of that whole ideology and that the highways are collateral. I think this is something people have to be reminded of.”
To read my complete interview with Ruzowitsky, visit www.films42.com/chats/ruzowitsky.asp
ALSO COMING SOON
Israeli director Adi Refaeli is on her way to Chicago for two special Women’s History Month programs. The first one will be at the Landmark’s Century Center Cinema in Lincoln Park on Saturday afternoon March 29. The second one will be at the Landmark’s Renaissance Place Theatre in Highland Park on Sunday afternoon March 30. Local sponsors include Hadassah’s Chicago Chapter and the Metropolitan Chicago Region of ORT America, with support from Israel’s Consul General to the Midwest (based in Chicago).
At each program, Refaeli plans to introduce her film Empathy before it screens, and then take questions from the audience afterwards. Empathy’s runtime is just 39 minutes, but in that brief time, Refaeli manages to introduce over one dozen characters. She obviously doesn’t have time to create complex back stories, but in each case we learn enough to apprehend motivation, even when some of the actions are reprehensible. These characters also speak multiple languages (Arabic, Hebrew and Russian), helping us to appreciate the great diversity of contemporary Israeli society.
I saw Empathy for the first time last fall when it screened once at the Wilmette Theatre during our 2007 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. I liked it so much that I named it my “Top Pick” in the Shorts category. Others obviously agree. Empathy has since been screened at numerous other film festivals both here and abroad, and when she leaves Chicago, Refaeli will do another program at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC before returning home.
For tickets, visit www.ortchicago.org or call 312.663.5832. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Walk-ins will only be accommodated if space is available.
Grace Paley, one of the most respected American short story writers of the 20th century, died last August at the age of 84. On February 21, I attended a tribute to Paley at the Women and Children First bookstore in Andersonville organized by Chicago writer Sandi Wisenberg. (Wisenberg is best-known for Holocaust Girls: History, Memory, and Other Obsessions first published in 2002). Also on hand were Rosellen Brown, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Kathy Kelly, Peggy Shinner, Sharon Solwitz, and Christina Villasenor, as well as Paley’s stepdaughter, Eliza Nichols. (Nichols is the new dean of fine and performing arts at Columbia College Chicago.)
“Short, white-haired, plainspoken Grace Paley is the patron saint—or the feminist, pacifist, leftist, Jewish matron saint—of those of us who believe in combining the artistic and the activist life,” Wisenberg wrote in an interview she did for The Reader in 1999 when Paley came to Chicago to do a program at the School of the Art Institute. “When I read her stories, her rhythm makes mine stronger; the voice in my head grows stronger even though I came a generation after her and didn’t grow up with Yiddish like she did,” Wisenberg told me last month when I called her for an update.
To me Paley’s “second generation” voice is perfectly captured in these lines from Faith in a Tree (1967), one of her most famous and most-clearly autobiographical stories: “What was my mother trying to prove? That I was independent? That she wasn’t the sort to hang on? That in the sensible, socialist, Zionist world of the future, she wouldn’t cry at my wedding? ‘You’re an American child. Free. Independent.’ Now what does that mean?” The question is just as poignant for women today.
TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION
The Jewish Americans, a six-hour series broadcast on PBS in January, is now available on DVD. Although it begins with the arrival of refugees from Recife in 1654, The Jewish Americans doesn’t really become compelling until the mid 19th century, skipping lightly over the first two hundred years and never once using the word Sephardic. But as soon as Jews begin arriving in large numbers, first from Germany and later from Eastern Europe, the depth and breadth of images and issues become truly riveting. Kudos to director David Grubin (already a winner of multiple EMMY awards) for recording a surprisingly great diversity of Jewish American voices, including many religious and academic leaders, rather than settling for a parade of over-exposed celebrities.
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.