Marc Levin on his documentary Protocols of Zion

Marc Levin talks about his provocative documentary Protocols of Zion, and the impact of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, in an unpublished article I wrote for The Independent newspaper in 2005. With antisemitism surging around the world, Ken Livingstone obscenely linking Hitler to Zionism, and recent news that Gibson is working on a sequel to his biblical blockbuster, the article feels more relevant than ever.    

The New York filmmaker Marc Levin couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The dust had barely settled over Ground Zero and conspiracy theorists were already blaming the September 11 outrage on the Jews. First there came the claim that there were no Jewish victims -- there were hundreds. Then the allegation that four thousand Jews had not turned up for work at the World Trade Centre on the day of the attack. In Brooklyn, a rumour circulated that rabbis had tipped off their congregants. Later, Levin, a humanist secular Jew, encountered an Egyptian immigrant taxi driver who put all the stories together, insisting they were true because it was written in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hundred years ago. “At that point I was like, ‘This is insane. What should I do?’”

Levin had good reason to be shocked. One of the most infamous examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion originated in Czarist Russia and purports to be a Jewish plan for world domination. Yet, despite being exposed as a hoax by The Times in 1921, the book became a crucial influence on Hitler, while one of the dictator’s most enthusiastic American supporters, Henry Ford, gave away a copy with every car. Disturbingly, it now appears that a new generation is turning to the Protocols for answers to their post-9/11 confusion.

“If somebody had told me in 1973, when I first read the Protocols, that this thing would be sold on the streets of New York, and would be sold out, I wouldn’t have believed it,” gasps Levin. “To me it was like a comic book from an age that had long gone.” 

But, as his unsettling if at times funny documentary, Protocols of Zion, reveals, Levin could not have been more wrong. Whether he is talking to a bookseller in the Big Apple, the tie-wearing front man for a White Supremacist organisation in the mountains of West Virginia, or a jailed member of the Nation of Islam, the story is always the same: the Protocols are hot. Even Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, appeared to have read them when he gave his incredible “Jews are ruling by proxy” speech, a clip of which is included in Levin’s documentary, at the opening of a 57-nation Islamic summit in 2003.

Maybe we should not be surprised. What with Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a party for a wheeze, Ken Livingstone refusing to apologise for likening a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard, and the Labour Party depicting the Jewish Leader of the Opposition as a pig and Fagin on pre-election campaign posters, it is hard not to feel that there is something in the air.

Meanwhile, according to the League of Human Rights of B’nai Brith’s 2004 audit of anti-Semitic attacks in Canada, media coverage of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ led to an upsurge of attacks against the Canadian Jewish community. In America the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has expressed concern that the Easter release of the Passion Recut will lead to the film becoming “the definitive version of the Passion story for the holy season”. Given this backdrop, the issues raised by Levin’s film are worth considering now, a few months before its US release.

“There are people in their 70s and 80s, like my brother-in-law’s mother who grew up in Poland and escaped right before the Nazis, who can still remember what Easter and Good Friday meant – they would hide,” says Levin. “Even before Nazism, it was fair game to burn some temples, kill some Jews, whatever. People are still alive that lived through that, so to ignore that is crazy.”

Levin wrote to Gibson because he felt that there were questions the Hollywood star needed to address, but neither Gibson nor his production company, Icon, replied. For Levin, the issue was not so much the film’s alleged anti-Semitism as “the context": how the film was released and discussed.

“[Gibson] was very skilful at making it a war with the Jews out to get him. A number of people have written that the martyr complex and violence, the two things that are glorified and celebrated in the Passion story, are the animating imagery in Mel Gibson’s life. So he would rather see himself martyred than as a peacemaker, bridge builder, or interfaith interlocutor. It fits his own self-image maybe more to be a battler who the Jews and others are after.

“That’s what disappoints me about the re-release of The Passion,” continues Levin, whose work, including the acclaimed docudrama Slam, has always been about trying to understand people from different communities, classes, races. “The guy already made half a billion dollars. He proved his point. So now why not use the movie to build some bridges, even if it’s to the more Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities? Because, ironically, it is the most religious that have the most in common, because they’re all crazy. But I don’t see him doing that. And I can’t believe he’s not doing that.”

Maybe Gibson simply does not care, given the views of his Holocaust-denier father. There will no doubt be some who consider Levin’s inclusion of a recording of Hutton Gibson claiming that six million Jews were not killed by the Nazis but simply “upped and left” because they have to follow the money, a cheap shot. But, as the pugnacious filmmaker rightly argues, Hutton’s views form part of the background against which The Passion should be discussed.

“[Mel Gibson] thinks everyone’s trying to pit him against his old man. Hey, you could say you love your father and your father’s a great man but there are certain things you and he don’t agree on . . . but he’s never said that.”

The Passion section of Protocols of Zion, and a troubling journey through the world of perma-smiling evangelical Christians, takes us back to the historical roots of the deicide charge which led to the hatred underlying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Holocaust. “You can’t ignore the question: where does all this come from?” says Levin. “It goes back to the charge that the Jews killed Christ. The Jews are evil. The Jews conspired. They’re always conspiring. So, in that context, the Passion story is radioactive.”

Nonetheless, Levin ultimately views anti-Semitism as just a part of a bigger problem of religious fundamentalism, and, apparently, as a symptom of the human condition. The September 11 attack, he confesses, “rocked some of my humanist assumptions” and awakened in him the “kind of tribal instincts that can be so destructive. That may be one of the reasons I was able to make this film when I did,” he muses. “I don’t know if I would be able to make it now. But right then, in the post 9/11 world, I felt some of that ‘Fuck it, they just blew up part of my neighbourhood. This is personal. This is war. Who gives a shit about humanism anymore?’

“That’s something inside all of us that has been manipulated and exploited so successfully by the Bush administration in our country. But this religious fanatic impulse, and how it can use some of your own humanist, democratic, tolerant and open society against you to destroy you, how you wrestle with that and not fall into the trap of just becoming a crusader who blindly marches off and creates more Osama bin Ladens, that is a dilemma. I still don’t have an answer to it.”


Anton Yelchin Interview: Films, Russia, Antisemitism, Punk

Anton Yelchin as Max in Burying the Ex
Sunday morning saw the tragic death of actor Anton Yelchin in a freak motor accident. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1989, Yelchin was six months old when his family moved to the United States. Starting as a child actor, he went on to appear in films including Like Crazy, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Green Room. Next month he will be seen playing Chekov, for the third time, in Star Trek: Beyond.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Yelchin at the Venice film festival, in 2014, when he was promoting Joe Dante's horror comedy, Burying the Ex. He was friendly, intelligent, and full of enthusiasm for the job he loved. Below is the full text of my unpublished interview.  

Before this you appeared in the remake of Fright Night. Is Horrror a genre you enjoy?

“Yeah. I think they're both films, to a certain extent, about films. But this specifically, the reason I was drawn to it was because of Joe. You know, you get a script and it's like, 'Okay, it's a film that Joe Dante would've made and he's making it', as opposed to some other guy who's making it and he's going to try to make a Joe Dante movie and it just won't be as good. So that is what I responded to.”

It looks like an old school horror film.

“Super old school B-film. It is at once old school but the difference is that it knows it is. Something Joe said at the press conference is he wanted to make a movie about movies because he likes making movies about movies because he loves movies. (I don't know how I got that out in one breath. Mm, what an idiot.) So the film, for me, what's special about it, yes it plays with all the elements of the old school picture, but it becomes a film – and I think a lot of Joe's films become about this – about identity and our identity as a spectator watching a film, and that vicious circle. You know, whether when we leave the theatre we live out genre films in our own lives, or whether we do things because we've seen them in movies, or movies do them because they've seen us do them. It begs a very interesting question about our identity and how to transgress being an object of a genre. That's what Max [his character] is. He's an object of the zombie movie but he's also the object of a zombie girlfriend, and he has to face both. He has to get rid of the zombie girlfriend and get rid of the zombie movie, and yet he's still in a movie! There's a lot of interesting things that are very Joe Dante.”

People have been saying it only took two weeks to make. Is that true?

“This film? I would say three and a half, maybe. It was really short. I would love to spin this myth we did it in two weeks but even three and a half or four is very short. I mean four weeks of shooting time is 20 days. Do you know what I mean? We don't shoot six-day weeks. Twenty days is like nothing. So it was tough.”

What does it mean for you?

“It means you don't sleep as much. You shoot eight or nine pages a day. You run around like crazy. I feel really lucky because I have made movies, or been able to be on sets, work on films since I was a little kid, and I love, like, film energy. Film people are so weird and I always look around and think, 'What a weird thing to be doing. And we're all so nuts. Like we've been here all day and it's probably like three in the morning but I'm inside so I don't actually know what time it is.' So just the shortening makes things crazier.”

Did Joe Dante talk about his work and movies a lot?

“Joe doesn't talk about himself or his film philosophy or anything. I'm like the irritating student that's trying to get him to say things.”

Did he get you to watch movies of Roger Corman, Mario Bava?

“Oh yeah! Joe loves Mario Bava. His favourite film is Lisa and the Devil. The way I watch movies when I try to study them, is I watch them by decade or by person or filmmaker or cinematographer. So it's going to take me a minute to get to Mario Bava. It's going to take me a minute to get to the '60s. I'm still in the '20s. But I love Roger Corman movies. I'm sure I'd love Mario Bava films as well, but I just haven't seen them. There's that great Corman film with Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff where I think he'd shot something and then he was like, 'Well we still have this set, so let's shoot this other movie.' Jack Nicholson retired after that to write screenplays, and then went back to acting. So that tells you something about the movie. It's a great film, The Terror.”

Vegas are seen as weird in Burying the Ex. What do you think of Vegans and Veganism?

“Look, I don't discriminate against Vegans. I think, though, in our culture there's this PC culture and you're told to behave and do certain things because that is the status quo. And the worst thing about it, I think, is the status quo used to be a thing that you could fight, because you'd say it's conservative, it's this, it's that. But now the status quo is Vegans and Toms [an ethical canvas shoe brand]. There's a great Slavoj Zizek lecture about Toms, and the bullshit of Toms. You're told to buy a $50 pair of shoes and one pair's going to go to some kid that likely needs better water, better education, and instead he's going to have a pair of trendy shoes. And that seems to me to be the biggest danger with Veganism, that it becomes not, 'Oh I actually care about my body, I care about the environment, and this is actually important to me', but it becomes, 'I want Veganism to become part of my identity.' Now the line is very blurry, I think, between the two. I think sometimes we think we're doing it for genuine reasons when we're not. So for me the problem obviously isn't Vegans. It's this PC Vegan culture where everyone's gluten free, everyone goes to Whole Foods. It's like do everything correctly, vote for Obama, be Left, be all these things, but at heart you're just as conservative and driven by consumerism as everyone else, and that is the problem.”

You have a lot of new films coming up. Is there one that you're especially excited about showing people?

“I get excited when I see all the different characters I've got to play. I feel very lucky to have been in all these different worlds. But in terms of showing someone something and saying, 'This is a film . . .', I don't ever really have much control over the actual film so I either like or dislike it, like or dislike my work. I go to work on the film but I don't see it until later. So I'm in the same boat as you and everyone else.”

You were in a Punk band, I read.

“Yeah, I had a Punk band. We sucked, which I think is part of being a Punk band. You kind of have to be a little shitty. But we were like a little too shitty. We were over-shitty. You can be shitty but sound good. We were like, 'These guys are just kind of shitty.' It was like that fine line between bad-good and just bad.'”

You play music in the movie Rudderless. Do you get something different from playing music and acting?

“Um, I don't take music as seriously as I do film. I take music seriously in the sense that sound is a part of film. At home when I play music I mostly am trying to work on sound designs and atmosphere. I'm not saying I don't think actors should also play music. My friend Chris [Mintz-Plasse] is very much into his band, The Young Rapscallions and tours. But I don't like saying I'm a musician because I think that then takes away from real musicians. I think they deserve the respect of saying, 'You're a real musician.' I like making music for fun. I've had guitars since I was a little kid. Always enjoyed it. It was very cool to be playing guitar in Rudderless. But at the same time I was next to Ben Kweller, who is a musician, and you know when you see a musician and a non-musician. Here's actors trying to play music and here's a musician.”

So how did you feel next to him?

“I just faked it, man. I'm an actor, I fake it. And I felt good. I felt comfortable in the sense I was telling myself to feel comfortable. Was I really comfortable, realistically? Am I as good a musician as the real guy in the movie? No. Should I be saying this? Are they trying to say we're all brilliant? I don't know. Maybe I just spoiled their whole publicity campaign. But the truth is it was a challenge and that's what was exciting. I had to pretend to be [a musician]. And not just pretend, because we recorded a lot of the parts, so there was a lot of sitting around learning the riffs, doing all the harmonies, the vocal parts and all that. It was really challenging. It was like really playing musicians.”

How do you work as an actor?

“A process that I am inspired by is becoming intimate with things that move you and you know are related to what you are doing. But they're not like fake emotions. I use films to help me understand characters, poems, anything. I draw from it and I'm getting more and more excited because of research I've done on Nicolas Cage, like when he was younger, especially, and the weird ways he would rehearse for roles. I remember reading he had an audition for something and he stared at a photo of Charles Bronson for a week, or two days straight, without leaving his room. I think that really helps and I've been using that more and more. Silent film performance. German Expressionist performances. Expressionism in general is very interesting. Painting. Anything. Everything is open to be drawn from and emulated in your work. I think it makes you more free and experimental. You might fuck up, you might go too far, but that's worth it. It's worth going too far. Vampire's Kiss is brilliant.”

You started as a child actor. What was the point when you realised that you could make it your profession?

“My parents are figure skaters, and they're incredible athletes, and I am, to say the least, the exact opposite of that. So they were trying to get me to do sports and stuff and it wasn't happening. I was trying my best, it just wasn't happening. And then I went to this acting class, because a friend of ours, Elya Baskin, said, 'Take your son to a class, he might like it, because he clearly isn't into sports,' and I loved it. It just went that way. I never intended it to be a career. I don't think my parents intended it to be a career, they just wanted me to be busy. They were busy from a young age skating, so they were like, 'You're not going to sit on your ass and watch TV. You're going to do something. Sports. Extracurricular anything.' And then I just kept going. Even though in senior year I had already worked at that point for almost 10 years, I still applied to college and went to college and sat my SAT's and tried to get good grades. It was sort of mostly like my parents saying, when I was little, 'Yeah this is okay that you're doing this thing. Just remember, you're going to be a lawyer.' I was like, 'Er, alright.'”

Did they drive you quite hard? I imagine that coming from the world of sport they'd have been disciplined people.

“Yeah, I think one of the biggest gifts my parents have given me is the discipline they have given me. It's like the biggest gift on set, I realised. Like showing up on time. Knowing what your job is and respecting your job. By virtue of your job respecting the people around you. And respecting yourself by knowing this is a thing you have to do. And there's a sort of odd thing between experimentalism and discipline. They seem to be at odds but they're not, really. I think Nicolas Cage is an incredible example. The man is extraordinarily disciplined - I was blown away by the man's discipline – but incredibly experimental. And the discipline allows the experiment to happen. So I'm so grateful to my folks that I was told, like, 'No, if you say you're going to do this you do your job. You work hard and you don't fuck off, basically, just because you think you can.' So I'm grateful for that.”

Would you like to work in any other areas of film?

“I've been writing for a while and I would like to make films, direct films. That is what I would ideally like to do. Tiny films so no one can tell me what to do. I really mean that. It's harder to make movies the less money you have but then less people are breathing down your neck. So I would just like to work on films. It would be amazing to direct. I think I would focus on how people understand themselves in the face of constructions that we live through.”

Do you feel as free on a big film like Star Trek as do on something small like Burying the Ex or Like Crazy?

“I do, actually. The character Chekov I play is such a broad, fun character, it's almost expected I'm going to feel free. After we did the first one I was saying, 'Oh alright, this is the kind of performance I gave.' So for the second one I was like, 'Well you've established it so now you can't just drop it, you have to keep up that thing.' So I do feel free. I feel like I got lucky that I got in a studio film that allows me to indulge the things I do anyway.”

Were you nervous about essaying such a well-known character?

“Sure. I respect Walter Koenig's work a lot because it's a huge part of pop culture and I want to make sure there is continuity between the old and the new, and dialogue between the two. And I'm fortunate because there's so much to have dialogue with.”

I know you hate when people call you a Russian actor.

“I don't like it much, I'm not.”

But you went there and made the t.A.T.u. film, You and I, and I wondered whether you felt any connection to the country?

“You know it's funny. I didn't really. I wanted to work with Roland Joffe and I wanted to go to Russia, so it seemed like a good adventure. But I feel a strong connection with the fact that this was a festival of Tarkovsky's first film it came to, you know? That I feel a real connection with. Part of me exists in that world. And I have been raised to think about certain things a certain way, and that I feel a connection to. Like I watch Tarkovsky films and I feel a connection. And that's probably just because Tarkovsky is incredible. And he is so incredible that we as humans connect to him and what he is putting out there. Whether you're Italian, German, Russian, Jamaican it doesn't matter. Tarkovsky's Tarkovsky just like Pasolini is Pasolini or Fellini's Fellini. You relate because they're amazing. 

"Also I do feel some connection when I read Russian literature like Daniil Kharms. Some of it has to do with I know a lot of the history from my parents about the Soviet regime, the effect it had on several generations. The generation of the Revolution, the generation after. My parents will be the fourth generation, they're from the '60s, my grandparents will be the war generation. So I feel a lot of connection and am moved by the knowledge of a horrible, repressive experiment that hurt so many people. I connect to that. I feel that.”

Your family's Jewish. Did part of your parents' decision to leave Russia have anything to do with antisemitism?

“Yeah, because they didn't want me to grow up being Jewish there they moved to the States.”

Jews had and often still have more limited choices there.

“Well I'd have got the shit beat out of me, realistically, as many children of my parents' friends did growing up. I don't know what the level of antisemitism is in Russia at the moment, I haven't been since we did press for Trek there. But that was a big part of why they left.”

I was there in 1980 and I spoke to a Jewish tourist guide who said her daughter couldn't go to certain schools, etc.

“Well the nationality on the passport would say Jewish. You'd get that, you'd feel that, and that's something I'm horrified by and hurt by and insulted by. Even though really, because I grew up in the States since I was six months old, in LA you don't get a lot of that. Sure, you get bigotry everywhere, but you don't get it bad. There's every kind of person on the face of the Earth in LA. I don't feel it but I am very sensitive to it as a result of that.”

Anton Yelchin, March 11, 1989 - June 19, 2016


Philippe Mora Discusses His Personal Documentary, Three Days In Auschwitz

Mora At The Gate To Auschwitz
When Philippe Mora visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 2010, to commemorate family members murdered by the Nazis, he began a quest to try and understand the inhumanity that produced the Holocaust 

If the Nazis had had their way, the Franco-Australian filmmaker/painter, Philippe Mora, like so many Jews, would never have been born. His mother, Mirka, her two siblings and his grandmother were arrested in Paris during the Roundup, in 1942, and sent to a transit camp in Pithviers, from where they'd expected to be transported to Auschwitz. However, 24 hours before being moved, they were freed.

Discussing his new documentary, Three Days in Auschwitz, from his home in LA, Mora tells me: “Only something like a hundred Jewish people were released, and four were my family. So the probability of me even being here on the phone, talking to you - .” He breaks off, as if still trying to process the grim odds. “It's unbelievable.”

Why they were saved became clear last year, when police records held in Paris revealed that his grandfather had used a letter forged by the Resistance to claim that the four were needed as labour in a Parisian garment factory producing uniforms for the Germans.

“It was obviously b.s.,” says Mora. “My aunt was eight and the other was 10, so they could hardly be making uniforms. But that's how they got out.”

As Mirka survived in hiding, the man who would become Mora's father, Georges (a German Jew born as Gunther Morawski), fought alongside Philippe's future godfather, the legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau, in the French Resistance. “It turns out that a lot of my family were what you'd call 'fighting Jews',” says the director, proudly. “There's an antisemitic myth that the Jews went quietly into the gas chambers. It's nonsense. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of protest.”

Eight of his father's family did die in Auschwitz, though. And when Mora attended a 2010 retrospective of his films in Wroclaw, Poland, where his paternal grandparents had been married, he was able to find out about them in archived documents that the Nazis hadn't had time to destroy before the Russians swept through.

“I couldn't believe the names of all my family members. I knew they'd died, but here it was in black and white.

“One name that struck me was Charlotte Morawski, who did a thesis on Nietzsche, in 1915, in Breslau (the German name for Wroclaw) University. There was a notation in her file that said: 'Charlotte Morawski has asked for the photo of her father to be given to the local synagogue when she is evacuated.' Evacuated was the term the Nazis used for Auschwitz/murder.”

To his horror, he discovered that the Nazis had gone through the house of a “comparatively very wealthy” great uncle, and valued every item “down to each cup, each plate, each chair . . . The value of taps. The value of toilets. It wasn't just murder. It was a huge looting, a robbery, and then kill the victims and no one will know.” 
Mora Outside A Gas Chamber

As Auschwitz wasn't far from Wroclaw, Mora decided to go to the camp to pay tribute to his dead relatives. Three Days in Auschwitz emerged from this and subsequent visits, over a period of five years, as the filmmaker - whose documentary Swastika shocked the Cannes film festival in 1973 by attempting to make sense of Hitler through intimate home movies shot by Eva Braun - struggled to find an “explanation for humans doing this to other humans”.

He began with a plan but as each each door he opened led to numerous new doors, the project became increasingly personal, until he reluctantly found himself in front of the camera, effectively scratching his head and wondering how you even make a film on the subject. “Every time I tried to analyse it, I came up to that wall of, 'What happened? How do you do this?',” he says. “So I just thought: 'I'm going to drive myself crazy here. Just do it and see where the cards fall.' In one way, it's more like a painting than a movie.”

In the film, he actually tries to convey some of the violence of the Final Solution through paintings he did inspired by Munch's The Scream (a foreshadowing of the Holocaust, he suggests) and Francis Bacon's post-Shoah work, though he questions the power of art to influence and change people.

Anti-Hitler artists in Germany “were on to it, the horror, before it all happened,” he says. “But the sad thing is, it didn't stop the war.” A few years ago, in Madrid, the sight of a group of schoolchildren studying Picasso's Guernica moved him. “[But] what is the effect of art?” he asks. “What is the effect of a movie? It's certainly overpowered by bombs, to put it crudely.”

In a quote at the beginning of the documentary, Goebbels tells Germans to “hang on” and one day they will be the subject of a colour film that will be elevating, rather than one that makes people “hoot and whistle”.Three Days in Auschwitz is Mora's slightly bewildered response to the twisted ideology that resulted in the murder of 6 million (possibly more) Jews, and the delusion of the Nazi regime.

The camp itself is now “the largest cemetery in the world”, says Mora, who, when he visited Auschwitz for a fourth time last year, was told that the number of visitors is “increasing exponentially”.

This is heartening at a time when antisemitism is surging and social media is being used to spread Holocaust denial. Mora recalls a quote he read from a professor: “Denial is a second genocide.” “That struck me, because if you deny this happened, you are creating a false reality. A counterfeit reality. Which is very, very dangerous.”

He views attempts by people on the internet to whitewash the Holocaust as particularly disturbing. “At first I ignored it, but I think it's dangerous to ignore it. I think you just have to calmly fight with facts. The true fanatics, you can't convince them. The nuts are the nuts. Its the people who think, 'Oh maybe that's true,' they're the ones that have to be nipped in the bud.”

Maybe Three Days in Auschwitz – intimate, unconventional, highly personal, and furnished with a haunting Eric Clapton score that could help it to reach a different kind of audience - can play a small role in this.

Art alone may not be able to hold back the darkness, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing – especially when 24 hours are all that have separated your existence from oblivion.

Three Days in Auschwitz is available on DVD and digital

A version of this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, May 26th, 2o16