Susannah Heschel: Selma

Susannah Heschel Discusses Her Father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King & Selma


Ari Folman: The Congress

Ari Folman Stays Animated For Hollywood Satire 
By Stephen Applebaum
Six years ago, Israeli film-maker Ari Folman found himself travelling the world on promotional duties for Waltz with Bashir. The movie was an animated, highly personal account of his search for lost memories of his time as a 19-year-old soldier in the 1982 Lebanon war, particularly during the notorious massacre of Palestinians by the Christian Phalangist militia at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The film garnered international acclaim, winning a Golden Globe and making Oscar history by becoming the first animated feature to be nominated for the best foreign-language film award. It should have been a happy time. However, the director — whose extraordinary new film The Congress opens in the UK this week — paints a darker picture.
“For me, travelling for nearly a year, talking about the war and myself became a nightmare,” recalls Folman, speaking from his home in a village 25 kilometres north of Tel Aviv. Waltz with Bashir had been a film “that I had to do”. But, after it, “I wanted to do something completely opposite. And I thought that sci-fi could give the perfect escape route, and it did in many ways. The Congress was me running away from Waltz with Bashir.”
Yet the Gaza conflict cannot help but remind him of the past. Although the sirens near his home have remained silent so far, in Jaffa, where his studio is based, they have gone off “once or twice a day on average. We were supposed to go to the safe room [when the sirens went off], which, basically, is the staircase of the building.
That is more [the situation] on a practical level. I would say that more than anything for me, it’s depressing.” Because it feels like history repeating itself? “Because it keeps happening again and again and again. This is very sad. And the fact that there is no horizon, that there is nothing to look forward to in the future, is even worse.”
Folman admits that he has become “less and less optimistic” about a solution to the conflict being found. “I think there are no leaders that can take tough decisions from both sides and make compromises,” he says grimly.
Waltz with Bashir split opinion when it was released in Israel. “There were people who thought I had betrayed my country,” he recently told an Irish newspaper. “I was a collaborator. But a lot of people thought I was doing something that was opening young minds.”
Would the reaction be different today? “That’s a clever question,” he responds drily. “It would be a nightmare to release the movie now. And a dangerous thing as well. Physically dangerous. That is because public opinion changed and became more radical.”
He is on safer ground with The Congress — adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Futurological Congress — a blistering mix of live action and animation that is part mind-bending sci-fi, part coruscating Hollywood satire and part meditation on consciousness, identity and being human.
At its core is a compelling, multi-layered performance by Robin Wright, playing a version of herself who, when told that her career is over, signs a contract allowing a studio to use her digital likeness in new projects while she goes off and lives her life elsewhere. It sounds simple, but technological developments and the studio’s increasingly outrageous demands take Wright, the film and the viewer on a wild, surreal head-trip that will baffle some and enthral others.
Ironically, The Congress feels angrier than Waltz with Bashir, although Folman takes a different view. “The reason I went to film school was because the role of a director was mainly to make magic happen on the set in a very limited period of time, between yourself and the actors, the cinematographer, the art department. And if it was not created on the set, nothing would save you. Today, the set is just a platform for making the movie in post-production, in many cases. So I wouldn’t use the word ‘anger’. I would use the word ‘longing’ — for a different era in film-making.”
He believes we are seeing the end of the cinema-going experience as we know it, predicting that, in five years’ time, going to watch a movie will be like going to a concert. “Maybe the next Mike Leigh movie — well, the one after that — will be screened in a museum, not in a multiplex,” he muses.
Folman hopes that his next venture, an animated version of the Anne Frank story, will be seen by as many people as possible.
His parents met in the Lodz ghetto and were married on August 18, 1944. The following morning they were sent to Auschwitz. He had no intention of doing another animated feature, or making a Holocaust film. But when approached to tell Anne’s story, he quickly realised that he had to do it. He is being given access to the Anne Frank archives.
“They want me to make it for young teenagers. For me it was an offer I could not refuse, considering that both my parents are Auschwitz graduates. I see it as a great mission for me.”
With renewed antisemitism around the world and the day nearing when there will be no more survivors to bear witness to the Holocaust, Folman agrees that it is imperative to find fresh ways of keeping the memories alive for future generations. “When I see my kids performing on Holocaust Day in their school, I am embarrassed to sit in the audience,” he says. “They’re quoting things we quoted 40 years ago and they don’t understand anything in any depth. Nothing. So we do need to find the right way to keep on telling these stories, definitely.
“At least you give the Jewish people an option to memorise and understand what it means." 


From The Archive: Patti Smith: Dream Of Life

‘The things I aspire to are infinite’ - Patti Smith interview

By Stephen Applebaum

Ever since people started calling her the “Godmother of Punk”, Patti Smith has been out to prove there’s more to her than that. A new film about her multifaceted life sets the record straight.

PATTI Smith’s groundbreaking 1975 debut album, Horses, helped ignite the US punk movement, leading the New York Times to dub the wiry performer “Godmother of Punk”. Smith herself, though, fought against attempts to define her. The album’s iconic cover, shot by her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, featured Smith dressed androgynously in men’s clothes, while the sleevenote stated that she is “beyond gender”. Today, at 61, her thin, aquiline face may be framed by lank grey hair, but the attitude of spiky self-determination remains the same.

“I don’t like to be called any label,” says Smith. “My band came out before punk rock. I like it very much, and I think it’s an important movement, but we have always been independent.” Journalists who call her a punk rocker “don’t have the imagination or the professional intelligence or the curiosity to see the full breadth of what I’ve done, and what my band has done”, she snipes.

Indeed, as a new documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life shows, there is much more to Smith. Shot mainly in haunting black and white, director Steven Sebring’s phantasmagorical “12-year slice of life” is by turns moving, funny, and surprising, not least in the way that it contrasts Smith’s onstage ferocity with her offstage gentleness and warmth. We see her as poet and painter, mother and daughter, sister and wife, dreamer, political activist and, of course, rock’n’roll animal.

“Yes, I am a great punk rock guitar player,” Smith laughs, “but in terms of music, the things that I aspire to are infinite.” Before the music, however, there was the word. Smith was encouraged to read by her mother, who gave her young daughter, among other things, a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Smith identified with the poet who, despite poverty and misunderstanding, pursued his work with joy. When she was 16, Smith stole a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations from a book store, beginning a lifelong obsession with the doomed poet.

“I fell in love with his face, and I thought he would make a very good boyfriend,” she chuckles. “I read the book, and I loved his poetry even more. I can only say that I have had a few really great men in my life, and I consider him one of them.”

By the early 1970s Smith, who grew up in rural South Jersey, had moved to the Big Apple and established herself as a poet and off-off-Broadway actress. In 1971, she performed three poems backed by Lenny Kaye on guitar, following which she set to forming her own band, and by 1979 had released four albums. Smith then shocked everyone by breaking up the band and moving to Detroit to raise a family with her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Smith didn’t disappear from the music scene altogether, though. In 1986 she recorded an album (released in 1988), Dream of Life, with her husband, for which Mapplethorpe again supplied the cover photograph. It was their last collaboration before Mapplethorpe’s untimely death from Aids three years later. Smith’s keyboard player, Richard Sohl, died shortly after, followed, in 1994, by her husband, aged just 45, and brother.

Allen Ginsberg urged the widowed artist to “let go of the departed and continue your life’s celebration”. Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him, and when she was looking for someone to take promotional photographs, REM frontman Michael Stipe introduced Smith to Sebring as someone he thought she would be able to trust, as she embarked on her first live performances in 16 years.

“I was trying to get my feet on the ground. I had no money, I had two small children, I had to start all over again, and Steven really supported me,” reflects Smith. “He became my new brother. To have the guy carting this big, heavy camera on his back, believing in me, was inspiring to me and helped me break through. A lot of people helped me. But, as I have always said, more importantly, the people helped me. People seemed glad to see me, were patient when I was nervous or a little rusty.”

The dead gently echo throughout Patti Smith: Dream of Life, but more as inspirations than losses. When Smith returned to New York, she was politically sharper thanks to her husband, and became one of the first artists to publicly oppose the invasion of Iraq. Her angry call for the indictment of George Bush for trampling over the American Constitution is one of the most powerful sections in the movie. Smith says some interviewers have suggested that they should edit out footage of her anti-war activities, because it is supposedly old hat.

“How can they say that?” she asks bemusedly. “Nobody listened. After Vietnam we let this happen in Iraq? Obviously people forget. So I think it’s very important to take a stand. Sometimes you take a stand when nobody else is taking a stand, because you have to keep the torch burning.”

And Smith herself, who has a new album out next month, The Coral Sea, is still burning as brightly as ever. The film is an inspirational, passionate, humanistic portrait of a beautiful soul that at times seems to take place in a space between the world of the living and of the dead. Smith is filmed visiting the graves of people she knew, or who have touched her through their work, but she insists that she is not morbidly preoccupied with death: “I find it comforting, I know their spirit is elsewhere but I like the proximity of something of them there. And for people I’ve never met, such as Arthur Rimbaud, I feel some sense of place that their remains are there and I’m there with them.

“When I go to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, I don’t feel the dead, I feel life. Young people go there, they make love, they smoke pot, they have a drink. Same with my husband’s grave. I go to visit his grave, which we did in the film, and often we’d leave him cigarettes, a shot of Cognac or something, and I don’t think about him dead, I think about him alive. I have good memories.”

Indeed, the clue is in the film’s title, inspired by a line from Shelley’s poem Adonas: “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep/He hath awakened from the dream of life.”

First published in The Scotsman


From The Archive: The Holocaust On Film (I)

Breaking the Silence: The Holocaust on Film
Written by Stephen Applebaum

"The Pianist" is the latest in a line of recent films to break the silence that once surrounded the Holocaust.

For a long time, the fact of mass extermination on an industrial scale was considered so morally daunting, the horror visited (mainly) on European Jewry so unimaginable, as to place the Holocaust beyond the reach of words. "After Auschwitz," said Theodor Adorno, "to write a poem is barbaric."

Claude Lanzmann found the idea of making a narrative film about the genocide similarly reprehensible. The Holocaust, he said, "erects a ring of fire around itself that cannot be crossed, because there is a certain degree of horror that cannot be transmitted. Fiction is a transgression."

He solved this moral dilemma for himself - firstly in the nine-hour documentary "Shoah", and more recently in "Sobibor: 14 October 1943, 16:00" - by eschewing archive footage and dramatic reconstruction in favour of filmed witness interviews.

Leslie Epstein, whose father and uncle wrote "Casablanca", regards Hollywood's late response to the Holocaust as a betrayal. "The movie moguls wanted nothing to do with the suffering of their own people," he said. "Jews in Hollywood turned their back on it."

Hollywood's earliest successful movies on the Holocaust, "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), played down the Jewish element of their stories.

And when Sidney Lumet focused attention on the psychological trauma of a survivor in "The Pawnbroker" (1964), he - according to one of the film's harshest critics - Christianised his protagonist (Rod Steiger) through love, grace, and suffering.

The 1978 television series Holocaust raised awareness of the Shoah as a Jewish event.
However, it took until the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" for the Holocaust to achieve mainstream 'success'.

Spielberg, to the horror of some, went further than any previous filmmaker in recreating the material details of the Holocaust.

The film's supporters praised Spielberg for bringing the Holocaust to the attention of a public largely ignorant of the episode, in a manner that was both educational and affecting.

His detractors, though, claimed that by wrapping the Holocaust up in the sentimental and melodramatic conventions of popular entertainment, the director had betrayed it. Spielberg's Holocaust is one of rescue and redemption; the reality, for most who experienced it, was very different.

Even more controversially, Roberto Benigni cloaked "Life is Beautiful" in sentiment, laughter, and tears. Audiences - both Jewish and non-Jewish - were split. The film won the Best Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival, but was labelled morally reprehensible and misguided by many.

Perhaps in partial reaction to Spielberg's "Schindler's List", Roman Polanski shoots "The Pianist" with a matter-of-factness that drains its story of survival of sentimentality, if not sentiment.

The horrors of the Warsaw ghetto are - in contravention of Lanzmann's dictum - vividly realised, and yet there is no milking them for effect. Similarly the film's protagonist, a concert pianist who finds himself alone in the ghetto, is passive and un-heroic, surviving more by luck than design.

Clearly, box office was not uppermost in the mind of Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor. A slew of awards, however, including the top prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, have improved the film's commercial prospects. 

With luck, Polanski's film will open the door for "The Grey Zone", Tim Blake Nelson's harrowing exploration of the moral confusion of the concentration camps, which opened in America at the end of last year.

Tougher, braver, and more challenging than Polanksi's somewhat conventional film, it takes us to the dark heart of Hitler's Final Solution: the crematoria of Auschwitz.

Yet, despite a cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette, "The Grey Zone" has not yet been picked up by a UK distributor. Some of those who have seen it, have deemed it too dark, too bleak and too grim - as if a Holocaust movie should be anything else

 Even in Shoah business, apparently, it's still bums on seats that count. 

Originally published on BBC Online

From The Archive: The Holocaust On Film (II): Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone

By Stephen Applebaum, May 8, 2008
Hollywood stars Tim Blake Nelson and Harvey Keitel have made a controversial Holocaust movie about the Jews who survived the camps by helping the Nazis commit genocide.

The Grey Zone is one of the most fascinating Holocaust films ever made, yet it never reached UK cinemas following its American debut in 2002. While it was released in Israel, Germany and Spain, among other markets, UK distributors baulked at the movie’s unredemptive narrative and stark, despairing tone. This week, it is finally released here on DVD.
Written and directed by the Oklahoma-born actor Tim Blake Nelson, The Grey Zone is based partly on Primo Levi’s essay of the same name and the eyewitness account of Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew who avoided death by working as Josef Mengele’s personal research pathologist. It compellingly investigates the impossible moral choices facing prisoners forced into the Sonderkommando.
These special squads were charged with running the camps’ crematoria. They maintained order among the new arrivals — or “cargo” — on their way to the gas chamber, removed the corpses, pulled gold teeth, cut women’s hair, and sorted and classified clothes, shoes and other belongings. They oversaw the burning of the bodies, and the collection and disposal of the ashes.
In exchange, they received larger quarters, books, better food, alcohol, cigarettes and the right to loot the dead. After four months, they were slaughtered themselves.
The Grey Zone focuses on the 12th Sonderkommando of Auschwitz II- Birkenau, who, in their final days in 1944, mounted an armed rebellion. None of the squad survived, but they destroyed half of the crematoria, which were never rebuilt, and killed 70 SS soldiers.
“I wanted to explore how the concrete story of the 12th Sonderkommando created moral abstractions which are ultimately impossible to comprehend, but which at least can be experienced by an audience member,” says Nelson, now 44, who adapted The Grey Zone from his own award-winning off-Broadway play.
“As an able-bodied Jew in my thirties, I could see myself in the very situation the Sonderkommandos faced. The film is an attempt to explore that predicament: would you save yourself, essentially by abetting the slaughter of others? Or would you, as most of us would like to think we would, refuse to do the work and be killed?”
The Sonderkommando are one of the most controversial and sensitive issues in Jewish history; they illustrated Levi’s point that life in the camps could not be “reduced to the two blocs of victims and persecutors”.
“I grew up hearing that Jews were innocent victims, Nazis were evil perpetrators, and there was no area in between,” says Nelson. “This, to me, is no way to look at history.”
Harvey Keitel, one of the film’s stars and executive producers, admits that not all the survivors who read Nelson’s script approved. “Some felt we should not make the film, that we had no right to do so; others felt we should. I had to agree with both; that we had no right, and that we had to.”
The filmmaker Joel Coen, who had directed Nelson in the comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, urged his friend Nelson not to do the film. “Joel is quite keenly suspicious of any Holocaust movie,” says Nelson. “He’s of the mind that it’s next to impossible to make a film about this that works.”
Avi Lerner, the film’s veteran producer, on the other hand, believes The Grey Zone needed to be made. Raised in Haifa, he recalls an old couple who were Holocaust survivors living in his building. As a child, he was fascinated by the numbers on their hands, but they never talked about the past. “Later, I felt that they felt guilty for surviving,” he says. “And this is the question I ask myself even today: ‘What would I have done in their situation?’”
Very few Jews retaliated, he says. “As I grew up, that brought me to the fact of why Israel is so important. I went up through the Israeli army and became a paratrooper and an officer, because it was a matter of surviving.”
All of this informed his decision to fund The Grey Zone, even though Lerner knew it made little commercial sense. “I just felt it is a part of my life, it’s a part of any Jewish person who’s growing up in today’s world and asking himself why they didn’t resist, why they helped the Nazis, why they were living like this.”
Nelson’s quest for authenticity took The Grey Zone further than any other film in terms of its evocation of the mechanics of the Holocaust. Undeterred by Shoah-director Claude Lanzmann’s belief that the Holocaust is beyond the grasp of narrative film, or even filmic representation — “There is a certain degree of horror that cannot be transmitted. To claim it is possible to do so is to be guilty of the most serious transgression,” Lanzmann has said — Nelson recreated Auschwitz’s crematoria in Bulgaria, taking the viewer through the entire process of reducing humans from flesh-and-bone to ash. “If what you want to do, as an artist, is to illuminate the human condition in any small way, then it seems to me that tragic historical events like the Holocaust are exactly what should be dealt with in artistic media such as film,” argues Nelson. However, he would not have made a film set during the Holocaust at all if he felt it had nothing to say about our lives now.

Indeed, before writing his play of The Grey Zone, he had worked for over 18 months researching and writing a play about his grandparents’ (his grandfather was a lawyer disbarred by the Nuremberg Laws) and mother’s experience in Weimar Germany and during the rise of National Socialism, and finally their escape on the eve of Kristallnacht. But “because it felt so familiar, I cast it aside”, he says. “I don’t think people have the time, interest or energy to experience Holocaust stories that are redundant at this time.”
The Sonderkommando’s story seemed relevant to him because of how chillingly desensitised the men became: “How workaday, even for the Jews, the violence was. What they learnt was to ignore,” says Nelson.
After the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004, and other recent atrocities, The Grey Zone seems more relevant than ever.
“I believe, in the hope of not permitting this to ever happen again, that it is best to look at the slaughter of the millions of Jews and gypsies in the concentration camps, and take a close look at the Jewish people who were there,” says Keitel. “It seems to me we must come to terms with the ability of humankind to slaughter children, to slaughter women, to slaughter helpless people. We have the capacity to do that. But we also have the capacity to pick up a gun and kill back to stop the slaughter.”

 The Grey Zone is available on DVD

From The Jewish Chronicle