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Craig T. Nelson,
the road to (cinematic) hell is paved with good intentions
This was a painful experience. Right off the bat, the subtitles were so poor that if we hadn't known the story (fictional spin and real events), we would have been completely lost. There is no excuse for this. The producers should have pulled the film from the festival knowing that the subtitles were unreadable.
If you are not familiar with the history of Babi Yar, do a web search, and all you will need to know will be shown. Babi Yar is another horrific event in a mind-boggling list of horrific events known collectively as the holocaust.
Having cleared that up, now on to the movie. There is a wealth of holocaust documentary and drama, and the level of subtlety and shading has improved greatly since the 50s. However, no one involved in this mess has seen any of those films. We start with newsreel footage, including Hitler speeches (right, we don't know any of this?). We move on to Jew and gentile families in close quarters with attendant cross-denominational love affairs, backbiting and betrayal. We work up to the denouement with martial drums (whenever Nazi trucks show up), a cantor bravely singing while the flames lap at his feet, and a crow (raven, whatever), that watches the action and provides us with a mute moral commentary. The SS chief has cirrhosis (and still belts them away), and all the Ukrainians speak perfect German (maybe they really do, but I have my doubts on this point).
Spoiler Alert (for those who didn't graduate high school or see any 50s-60s films of this genre):
The double-crossing gentile gets her just deserts, the Jew-gentile young lovers get away, and everyone has to take their clothes off before going into the pit EXCEPT for the female lead (contractual obligations, one would assume), and Trigger the wonder horse gets shot after performing bravely.
Let me be clear. The crimes of the Holocaust should be documented, dramatized and continually drummed into everyone's head FOREVER. NEVER FORGET/NEVER AGAIN is the operative concept here. There are still an amazing number of unique stories to be told, and when they are done well (see the Grey Zone, Nowhere In Africa for recent examples), they can inform and move the audience.
This one, however, with the best of intentions, comes off as amateurish and clichéd. Avoid at all costs until real subtitles are provided, and even after that, approach cautiously.
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