Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jewish film fest offers up mixed bag of goodies

The Atlanta Jewish Film Fest continues for another week or so here in the Land of Cotton, but the lovely Miss Wendy and I won’t be attending any more movies. We finished up our ambitious effort over the weekend and managed to see a dozen or so films this year.

As usual it was a mixed bag of cinema – documentaries and features; comedies and dramas; Israeli, French and Polish productions. Most were good, at least two were excellent. As some of you might recall, I was taken with The Matchmaker, an Israeli film that managed to seamlessly blend both a coming-of-age comedy and Holocaust drama. It offered few surprises, but the characters were memorable, the story compelling, and the cinematography lovely.

Another Holocaust film, The Round Up, also captured my attention. Unlike The Matchmaker, there was nothing subtle about this heartbreaking movie. The feature is based on the very real stories of two Holocaust survivors who were part of a massive roundup of Jews in Paris and its suburbs.

For a year or so after the Nazis invaded and occupied much of France in 1940, Jews were forced to comply with a series of draconian measures limiting their rights and freedoms. They were forced out of certain professions and schools, denied access to parks and other public places and ordered to wear a Jewish Star on their shirts and coats.

Much of this was accepted by both the Jews of France and their gentile neighbors with a shrug of their collective shoulders and the hope that sanity would be restored once allied troops managed to regroup and liberate the country. Unfortunately, the Nazis and their French collaborators had other plans.

On July 16, 1942, French police began the roundup of Jews in and around Paris. There were about 25,000 Jews in the region and before the day was out more than 13,000 were detained and arrested, some transported to an internment center in the northern suburb of Drancy, others taken to the Vélodrome d'hiver. The velodrome is at the heart of the bestselling novel, “Sarah’s Key”, that covers much of the same ground as The Round Up.

The movie, meanwhile, takes us inside the Vel' d'Hiv, the camera pulling back slowly and dramatically to reveal the massive velodrome. It’s a stunning sight. The sports palace had been transformed into hell, the sick and dying shunted aside into smallish tents; children dashing about, families attempting to hold onto one another and their dignity.

After five days with little to eat or drink, the lack of basic sanitation and soaring temperatures that hovered around the century mark, the detainees are shipped off to three nearby internment camps – Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers. In the film, we follow the struggles of several characters at Drancy – Jo Weisman and his family; Annette Monod, a Protestant nurse; and David Sheinbaum, a Jewish doctor memorably portrayed by the well-known French actor Jean Reno.

By focusing on the dreams and nightmares of a few central characters and the thuggish and psychopathic behavior of their Nazi and French tormentors, Director Roselyne Bosch manages to poignantly humanize the Holocaust. We feel Jo’s pain, Annette’s outrage, the doctor’s frustration and anger. The Holocaust is no longer just an incomprehensible number. For a moment, it has all become very personal.

Life at Drancy doesn’t get better or worse. The venue has changed but survival remains a daily struggle. Meanwhile, the Nazis and their French puppets are struggling with a logistical problem. The Germans have become so efficient at rounding up Jews across Europe that they’re unable to murder and cremate them fast enough and the “Final Solution” is falling behind schedule.

The solution is to separate all the children from their parents, a heartbreaking scene in the movie that, unfortunately, really happened. The youngsters, many of them only toddlers, remained at Drancy while the adults were transported to Auschwitz and murdered. The children followed a few weeks later.

After allied troops crushed the axis powers and the dust had cleared, the utter madness of the Nazis and the Final Solution became clear. Six million Jews had been slaughtered in death camps and killing fields across Eastern Europe, including over 40,000 who had been rounded up in France during the summer of 1942. Of those detained and deported that summer, only 800 or so made it back to France when the war ended.

It was a stunned and somber audience that sat quietly in the theater as the final credits rolled. I know that all about me were others trying to make sense of what we had just witnessed; a reminder yet again of the darkness that swept across the world just seven decades ago.

The world, of course, has moved on and the darkness long ago pushed aside. Today we live in a golden, enlightened age. I’m pretty certain those last words were also written by some poor soul in Germany in the late 1930s. I'm just saying ...

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