Anti-Semitic Education?

Last night the co-chair of IWA’s Film Discussion Group asked me to lead another discussion of Lone Scherfig’s Oscar-nominated film An Education.  And once again, the question “Is An Education anti-Semitic?” triggered huge debate.

As a Jewish-American critic, I am often perplexed about the representation of Jews in popular culture. I sometimes watch films about characters I know are Jewish, but they’re not identified as Jews, and they’re played by actors seemingly selected to throw audiences off track. So what to make of the fact that “David” (An Education’s con artist/predator) is explicitly identified as Jewish?

In Lynn Barber’s memoir, her seducer isn’t just Jewish, he’s actually lived in Israel and may even be Israeli. (Lynn keeps trying to locate his accent but never quite succeeds.) He tells stories about his kibbutz days, and when he calls Lynn years after the end of their relationship, he calls her from Jerusalem.  These details are completely deleted from the screenplay, and what little remains of David’s Jewish background has its primary pay-off in Jenny’s second scene with her school’s Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”

From a Feminist perspective this is a real mistake, because in their third and final scene together, the Headmistress nails it. Jenny says: “I suppose you think I’m a ruined woman,” and the Headmistress replies: “You’re not a woman.” The regal Emma Thompson is making a critical plot point here: a girl does not become a woman just because she’s had a sexual relationship with a man.  So I hate to see the tremendous power of these words diminished because they come from the mouth of someone already discredited as an anti-Semitic bully.

Furthermore, the historical facts add an extra level of anxiety for Jewish viewers: the film is set in 1962 and the villain is a Jewish man in his late thirties. So where was David before, during, and immediately after WWII?

My bottom line: No, An Education is NOT anti-Semitic.  An Education is based on a memoir & the man in question was definitely Jewish.  Nevertheless, that fact was a predictible irritant, so I wish Nick Hornby had either amplified it or  just left it out of his otherwise excellent screenplay.

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Click HERE to read my review of An Education for WomenArts (including more ranting about Roman Polanski in the “Spoiler Alert”).

Click HERE to read my chat with Director Lone Scherfig along with pictures of her visit to Chicago to show An Education at our 2009 Chicago International Film Festival.

Click HERE to read my rant “When Bad Marketing Happens to Good Movies” posted right after An Education received THREE Oscar nominations (in which I argue that Nick Hornby should have had a shot at winning “Best Adapted Screenplay,” but alas, the producers blew it).

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