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The Twilight Zone: The Silence (1961)
Season 2, Episode 25
Rod Serling inspired by Chekhov?
18 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I remember how I was intrigued by this episode when I first saw it on TV at the age of 12. It had the classic twist at the end -- the "comeuppance" that I came to expect of great Twilight Zone episodes. But it also struck me as similar to a Chekhov short story I had read only a couple years earlier in my parent's library. So today, I checked the internet and found the short story online at The Bet by Anton Chekhov - about a banker and a young lawyer who make a bet with each other about whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. You can find it other places and on Wikipedia. Was this Twilight Zone episode inspired by the Chekhov short story? Don't know. Don't really care. In my humble opinion, both tales are fascinating; but the 30 min TV episode seems to be less compelling than Chekhov's very thoughtful excursion into the meaning of life. The former is very good TV; the latter is great literature. For fans of the Twilight Zone, I highly recommend reading The Bet by Anton Chekhov. It will take you less than 30 min.
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What it was like
20 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I was 20 in 1969. I wasn't at Woodstock. I was on a Road Trip from New York to Denver and then SF - finding myself - selfishly, just like the people in this movie. The movie encapsulated many experiences in that one summer. Looking back, it took me several years to experience what was covered in this movie. For me, that occurred between 1967 and 1972 -- between Sgt Pepper and Jackson Browne -- between Chicago and Berkeley -- from college, through marriage and divorce, to California freedom. I remember being the guy whose wife needed and found someone else. I remember being the young free spirit dating the divorcée -- or the almost divorcée. Yes, these could have happened to anyone else at any other time. And generational conflicts that marked 1969 - rebellion, loose morals, iconoclasm, etc - did occur at other times in history. But this movie accurately portrayed what I did experience: listening to those songs, attending those kinds of concerts, dating those kinds of girls, just being young, free and ... yes ... selfish. I learned a lot from those experiences. And this movie did an excellent job presenting many of those conflicts, moral choices and learning experiences.
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A personal statement about a lot of ideas
14 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Carroll's exceptional book - Constantine's Sword - is a comprehensive exploration of the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. However, because this relationship extends over 2000 years, no single book or single volume could adequately cover the details of this history. So one should not expect this excellent documentary to even come close to the detail and depth needed by the subject matter. On the other hand, this documentary succeeds in at least introducing people to this bloody and embarrassing history of intolerance and hatred. As noted in one of the DVD "extra scenes," a majority of college students incorrectly stated that Jesus was a "Christian," when he actually was a Jew. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that most people have little or no knowledge about Christian persecutions of the Jews before and during the Crusades, through the Spanish and Italian Inquisitions, as well the "blood libels" raised from 1144 to before World War I. A film like this one is needed to challenge ignorant and disingenuous expressions like Mel Gibson's inflammatory "Passion of the Christ" and the Pope's recent assertion that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of "neo-paganism" that took root in Germany.

Carroll's personal anguish in this film, I believe, mirrors the conflict that every viewer should feel in intellectually considering the myths of one's religious beliefs. For example, in one of the DVD "extra scenes," a Jewish activist commiserates with Carroll about his concern that his religion often holds itself up as being holy, perfect, and infallible. How unrealistic. I thoroughly appreciated hearing about Carroll's internal struggles with his faith and his religion - as well as his conflict with his father. Lofty philosophical and religious ideas do not exist in a vacuum. A religion is not just principles of faith. It is also the people who express that faith, whether Haggart, Constantine or the Pope, and the actions they take or fail to take.

Carroll's focus on attempts by evangelicals to proselytize at the Air Force Academy, and to use Academy cadets to proselytize non-Christians is, in my opinion, a perfect example of one of the core issues raised in his book: A religion that can sometimes be a force for good, kindness and compassion can also be a force for intolerance, hatred, and holy war. Also, another core issue is that some "true believers" -- e.g., those who proselytize their faith to convert non-believers -- are blind to the harm that they cause, are ignorant of the myths they assume are true, and some are -- e.g., in Haggart's case -- just plain hypocrites. And I find this to be true of the intolerant fundamentalists in my religion - Judaism - from my own personal experience. Carroll's film might focus on Constantine, the Air Force evangelicals, and Catholicism, but it raises universal issues of myth-making, ignorance, intolerance and xenophobia applicable to other faiths and other circumstances.

I do not fault this film in any way. It is an excellent introduction to all the issues. It is intended to make some people uncomfortable and to encourage many people to study the issues in greater depth.

For those who want to read more about the Air Force Academy and the evangelicals, I recommend the article "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military" by Jeff Sharlet in the May 2009 Harper's Magazine.

Those who want to read more about antisemitism, the myth of Jewish "deicide" (i.e., killing Jesus), the Crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels, and other examples of Christian acts against Jews, there are many volumes in your library or available by inter-library loan. Unfortunately, these books don't get checked out much, which seems to support another point raised by this film: some people prefer to believe the myths and remain ignorant of the facts.
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Sixty Six (2006)
So true ... so true
6 July 2009
OK, perhaps my perception is biased by the fact that my Bar Mitzvah was in 1962, albeit Chicago. But this movie rang true on every count: the family business, the distracted (worried) father, the overprotective mother, the domineering brother (just like mine), and the exaggerated importance that (we) twelve year old boys desired of our "coming out party." The movie made me laugh out loud, and even audibly groan at the pathetic human foibles. Bernie's family was (almost, but not quite) as crazy as my own. But the central theme of the film was neither the craziness of family nor the anticipation of disaster. It was how Bernie and his family got through it all and learned core and timeless values. I do not want to spoil it, so I will just say that the ending was incredibly fulfilling. Every Rabbi should see this film. Every parent should see it with their twelve year old -- boy or girl, Jew or Gentile.
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Sworn to Silence (1987 TV Movie)
True story of the lawyer's professional duty of confidentiality
1 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
It was shocking to see the violent reactions of the townspeople to the defense attorneys. But this film is based on a true story, and I understand that the film does not exaggerate the facts.

According to an article in the 2007 ABA Journal: The defense attorneys, Armani and Belge, "received widespread support from the legal profession, but in the court of public opinion, they didn't fare much better than their client." They were widely reviled by non-lawyers. Their law practices withered. They received hate mail and death threats. Longtime friends stopped speaking to them. They had to move out of their homes. Belge eventually gave up his law practice. Armani suffered a heart attack. A grand jury investigated both lawyers and indicted Belge. The case against Belge was dismissed in 1975. Finally, a New York State Bar ethics committee upheld the lawyers' conduct, explaining that client confidentiality promotes proper representation by encouraging the client to fully disclose all relevant facts — including the commission of prior crimes. In 2006, Armani received a distinguished-lawyer award from the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Bar Association.

It would be unfair to compare this film (and the book it is based upon) to Harper Lee's artistic classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the comparison is unavoidable. To the film's credit, this film accurately portrays the public pressure, condemnation, hatred and violent reaction to the lawyers' representation of their awful and thoroughly unredeemable client. And to Armani's and Belge's credit, they were the real-life "Atticus Finch." Their painful ordeal, but heroic conduct, will be studied in law schools for many years.
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Very personal and very revealing
1 May 2007
This documentary follows Norman Salsitz as he returns to his birthplace of Kolbuszowa in Poland. Salsitz, who passed away recently, authored several non-fiction books about growing up in Poland before World War II, surviving the Kolbuszowa ghetto and the German concentration camps, escape and insurgent activity during the War, trying to return home after the War, and later moving to Israel and eventually the US. In addition to becoming a very successful businessman, he dedicated his life to Holocaust education and honoring his Jewish roots in Poland. This film documents his return to visit his parents' home and business, his search for property and friends, his visit to the Kolbuszowa Jewish Cemetery and his recollections of his incredible and horrifying experiences during the War. His daughter and his grandsons accompany him, and their insights and reactions are enlightening. My family is also from Kolbuszowa, and one of my uncles was a good friend and classmate of Norman Salsitz. Another uncle of mine also returned to Kolbuszowa (around 2001) and had very similar experiences feeling alienated by the Polish residents, feeling the loss of the abandoned synagogue, and feeling the despair of visiting the cemetery where his mother (my grandmother) is buried. I visited Kolbuszowa in the summer of 2006. So I am naturally inclined to be sympathetic to this material and emotionally involved in the images. On the other hand, the direction and the cinematography (by the outstanding Albert Maysles) are compelling. What some people might not appreciate is the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s Kolbuszowa's 4,000 citizens were evenly split, half Jews and half non-Jews. The town crest contained the Christian Crucifix, the Jewish Star and two hands shaking. Now sixty years after the War, there are many Jews who cannot bring themselves to even think about their Polish homeland without feeling intense anger and there are many Polish people who feel the need to justify the War time extermination of the Polish Jews as well as their continued expulsion from Poland. This film contains many uncomfortable images, discussions and confrontations, but they educate and illuminate.
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Romance, tears, humor, humanity
13 March 2007
This is one of my personal all-time favorite movies. If you read the "Memorable quotes," you will see a few reasons why. It has some wonderful expressions of love. It has pithy moments of humor. The legendary Robin Hood -- I admit that I grew up watching every episode of the TV series with Richard Greene -- was always larger than life for me. By 1977, I had been settled in career, divorce, some success and some failures -- just like millions of baby-boomers -- and it was enlightening for me to see a more real and human imagination of my "hero:" A Robin Hood humbled by his failures, his false hero, his lost love, and the ordinary aging process. Of course, the acting by Hepburn & Connery is outstanding. So I believe that this film -- not well known and rarely shown on TV - will stand the test of time.
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The Pianist (2002)
A missed opportunity
22 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I should explain why I did not rate this film higher. I think it a good film. I think Adrien Brody did an incredibly good job. I think the film more than adequately portrayed the protagonist's near-death experiences. It is dramatic and life-affirming. Many scenes are memorable. Also, as an amateur musician, I can attest to how music can provide purpose, sanity, and sustenance in times of deprivation, pain and fear. Wladyslaw Szpilman was a truly remarkable man whose story of survival was worthy of honoring. But he did little to help others. He observed and suffered from the horrors of the ghetto, but he did little to confront them. Polanski singularly exalted Szpilman's personal survival, when he could have explored other aspects of Szpilman's story. For example, Szpilman's conduct of protecting himself -- and not joining with others, assisting others, or joining the Warsaw ghetto resistance -- was similar to the conduct of the Polish Resistance groups who refused to help the Jews in the Ghetto in spite of the fact that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was at the time the more successful anti-Nazi effort being waged in Europe.

I don't fault Polanski for not exploring so many of the other issues that he could have raised -- just as I do not criticize Szpilman for not doing more to help others. But I think that the movie could have been better. It could have at least raised the question of selfishness and survival.

Of course, the film made the Holocaust more accessible and more palatable to a wider audience -- particularly to a non-Jewish audience. Szpilman seemed more like a Polish gentleman than the kind of "alien" Jews -- by that I mean the rural, shtetl-based Orthodox Jews -- that the many Poles hated and discriminated against, sometimes just as violently as the Nazis. I suppose that Polanski identified with Szpilman and was particularly horrified that the Holocaust would threaten the lives of cultured, assimilated Jews who were no different than their Polish neighbors. Of course, it is his prerogative to select what Holocaust story to tell. His film is similar to some of the films about Bonhoeffer and other Christians arrested by the Nazis. I just think that other films on this subject -- even those about non-Jews -- were much more illuminating, complex, and dramatic -- like "Schindler's List," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Amen," and "The Grey Zone."
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Pulp Fiction (1994)
Style over substance
22 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Quentin Tarantino's film is very dramatic and engaging. The acting -- especially by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson -- is outstanding. The slicing of the time line is awkward at times, but it demands attention and makes a repeat viewing valuable, if not necessary. Nevertheless, in the end I ask myself: What I have learned? Where has this film taken me? It is like taking a wild roller coaster ride. It is worth riding again. But I cannot put it in the same category of great films that raise important issues or dramatize a moral dilemma. It does not have the philosophical dimension of great cinema like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Seven Samurai," or "Monsieur Verdoux." On the contrary, it's near glorification of gratuitous violence -- not matter how cinematic -- is ultimately offensive.
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Serenity (2005)
Intelligent sci-fi adventure with the right blend of humor
10 October 2005
For sophisticated and jaded 21st century movie audiences, this film has the appropriate blend of action, sci-fi, comedy and anti-authority to make it fun and keep my attention every minute. There is a lot of predictability, but the thrill is seeing HOW the plot plays out. There is a core mystery that keeps you intrigued until the last twenty minutes -- and then the fight scenes are enough to carry the film to the end. The characters are iconic and slightly thin -- but the acting is believable and empathetic, with a quip now and then to show a side to a character that you'd like to explore in -- dare I say - a sequel. There are noticeable moments of profundity, like the brief discussions about who gets saved and the villain's obsession with "falling on one's sword." Fortunately these deep issues are raised subtly and never resolved. One pleasant surprise is the humor -- at times deadpan, insulting, risqué, subtle and/or quick. This film is worth repeat viewings -- especially on the big screen where the action and outer space scenes enhance the experience.
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A document that should shame all Holocaust Revisionists
12 May 2005
Survivors recall the persecution, the transports, the camps, the lice, the ulcers, and the death. German school children conduct interviews -- their innocent, questioning eyes unable to hide their horror upon hearing the details of how a German government systematically sought to murder all the Jews and how ordinary citizens cooperated and enabled such cruelty. This film does not try to capture the scope of six million Jews murdered. Instead, it focuses on one family and what the few survivors experienced and observed. Little vignettes are heart-wrenching: like when the adult Inge recalls how -- as a child -- she had to say farewell to her fellow Jewish schoolchildren, knowing that they were being transported on trains from Stuttgart to "resettlement," but her family was allowed to stay because her father was a disabled war veteran. The film also contains horrifying documents: e.g., gestapo orders to appear at the train station, and newspaper articles extolling the removal of all Jews from a town. It makes you wonder how any German Jew could ever speak German again or visit Germany again or speak to any former friend. But they do. And I know how true this feeling is. My family lived in Karlsruhe only 75 miles from Goppingen, the city that is the subject of this film. My family was fortunate to escape Germany just before Kristallnacht. My aunt returned to Karlsruhe several times after the war and met with her childhood friend, a Christian. I accompanied her on one such trip. I met this wonderful friend and heard her describe the horror of being a Christian in Germany while the Nazis persecuted and deported the Jews. Her fear and her shame were obvious -- not unlike what was expressed by several of the Germans interviewed in this film. The telephone operator said that she will never forget the smell of the crematorium. And you get the impression that the German students listening to her will never forget their experience learning about it.
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Silence (I) (1998)
Fascinating, imaginative, for all ages
21 April 2005
This animated short film tells the story of a five-year-old -- Tana Ross -- who survives World War II and the Terezin concentration camp. She and her grandmother then move to Sweden to join relatives. But she is not permitted to talk about the past or ask any questions. When she is older, she is given letters written by her mother before dying in Auschwitz. Black-and-white drawings and historical archive footage are combined with colorful scenes -- bringing the child's experiences to life -- and making this unusual film accessible to even the youngest members of the family. The filmmakers were inspired by the play "Through the Silence," which was performed by Tana Ross and provided with music and words by Noa Ain.
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The Rogue and the Rabbi -- An unforgettable gem of a film
13 February 2005
This movie has withstood the test of time ... 25 years so far. At times it appears to contain obvious, silly and even base comedy. But that only mildly disguises the depth of humanity and profound philosophy that it successfully presents. Like other commentators, I consider this film to be one of my all-time favorites. Gene Wilder was at the peak of his career, having made a big splash in The Producers with Zero Mostel, and then going on to memorable performances in other Mel Brooks' classics: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. In fact, many people erroneously believe that The Frisco Kid is a Mel Brooks film. (Indeed the writers, Elias & Shaw, had several years earlier written a TV Pilot based on the Blazing Saddles plot, but it had failed.)

Though I am a big fan of Mel Brooks, I think that one reason this film succeeds so well is that Robert Aldrich directed it instead of Brooks. In other words, it is essentially a dramatic western that is filled to the brim with comedy -- instead of the other way around. Aldrich had previously directed serious epic westerns, and he became famous in the sixties for directing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Dirty Dozen. These films, as well as his classic The Longest Yard, showed how infusing humor into serious drama can make plots more interesting and characters more human and sympathetic.

Frank DeVol provided the music ... and you can see him in the part of the old time piano player. DeVol had provided music for a number of Aldrich films, including the five films mentioned in the previous paragraph. He was famous for his comic scores (e.g., Pillow Talk, Cat Ballou, and The Trouble with Angels) and his music for TV series (e.g., My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, McCloud, and the Love Boat).

Another gem in this film is Harrison Ford -- in a role that seems so second-nature to him, but showcases his versatility. His character is not that much different from Hans Solo. (Star Wars appeared in 1977 and Empire Strikes Back appeared in 1980, while The Frisco Kid came out in 1979.) In fact, it seemed emblematic of the movies in the sixties and seventies that some of our big screen heroes were selfish rogues with a heart of gold. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which came out in 1969.

The executive producer was Hawk Koch, whose father, Howard W. Koch was a Hollywood icon, having produced scores of films, including The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple. This was one of Hawk Koch's first jobs, and he has now been the executive producer of over twenty outstanding features, including Mike Myers' Wayne's World and -- another great comedy exploring religious belief -- Keeping the Faith, with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton.

Finally, because the DVD is not yet available, here's a gem that was not included in the IMDb Memorable Quotes section, though I have edited it to avoid giving too much away for those who haven't seen the film yet:

"Chief Gray Cloud: Yes or no, can your God make rain?"

"Avram: Yes."

"Chief Gray Cloud: But he doesn't?"

"Avram: That's right."

"Chief Gray Cloud: Why?"

"Avram: Because that's not his department!"

* * *

"Avram: ... He gives us strength when we're suffering! He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred! He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness! ... "

HOW TRUE! Whether you identify with Gene Wilder's Rabbi or with Harrison Ford's Rogue, this film is filled with valuable lessons. The world is unpredictable. Sometimes we suffer. And sometimes we find strength, courage, compassion, ... and humor to deal with it all.
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9 November 2004
The novel by Lion Feuchtwanger -- written after Hitler came to power but before he threatened war -- was prescient to say the least. And this patient and detailed mini-series does an amazing job to make you "feel" the incredulity and despair felt by the successful, wealthy, and secure assimilated German-Jewish family members -- a businessman, a doctor, and a professor -- as they slowly realize that their occupations are being appropriated, their professions are being denied, and their friends are unable or unwilling to help. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water -- hardly aware that the water is being heated slowly to the boiling point -- the Oppermanns did not immediately try to escape Germany. They remained, trying to salvage what they could, until it was too late. Some libraries have this program on videotape.
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Unique, sad, and pregnant with ideas.
18 April 2004
Any documentary about a successful Berlin Cabaret performer, film actor and film director is the exciting and creative world of pre-WWII Germany -- who performed with Weill, Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, etc -- would be in itself unique and fascinating. This documentary certainly fulfills that expectation. In addition, it is the sad, tragic story of how a great artist was hounded and dehumanized by the Nazis. Finally, it is the incredible story of how the Nazis coerced Kurt Gerron to direct one of its most outrageous propaganda films to try to show the world that the Terezin Concentration Camp was a paradise for Jews sent to live in the "east." The reality was that Terezin was a squalid, overcrowded transit camp -- where many died from disease -- and tens of thousands were transported to Auschwitz (and other camps) to be murdered. In the end, Gerron was coerced to face the ethical dilemna that the Nazis posed to all their prisoners: "As long as you help us, we have a reason to keep you alive -- so ... How soon do you want to die?"

Did Gerron make the film because he was selfishly trying to save himself and his family? If so ... so what? Wouldn't you have done that? On the other hand, it is even more tragic to think that Gerron probably knew that the Nazis would never let him live -- and that this was his last chance to work -- to be creative -- to be a "macher" -- to have a modicum of control over his life. Like all great artists, he did not want to produce anything less than his best. Certainly, many of the "actors" in the film were forced to pretend to be happy. On the other hand, when you see children eating bread and butter joyfully -- and you know that they would not have such food were it not for this film -- you can imagine that perhaps they were not pretending to enjoy the food. Similarly, the chorale group, the children's musical, and the symphony (performing "Study for Strings," written by Pavel Haas while he was incarcerated in Terezin) were not "pretending." They were enthusiastically displaying their love for their art and their pride of accomplishment. The Nazis should be vilified for their treatment of these artists. But the artists have nothing to be ashamed of.

The film raises more questions than it answers. And some of the answers it suggests may not be convincing. But that is another reason why this film is deeply moving and valuable.

This is an extremely well-made documentary -- excellently preserving much archival film footage. Ian Holm is an outstanding narrator. And the moments we see Gerron's acting and hear his singing are likely to encourage you to want to rent several of his films. Nominated for the 2003 Oscar -- amongst Spellbound, Winged Migration and Bowling for Columbine -- this film is further evidence that today's documentary film makers are among the best creative artists in the cinema.
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The Grey Zone (2001)
A must see film
18 April 2004
Many Holocaust films present the ethical dilemna of trying to stay alive at the cost of allowing others to die or even sending others to their death. A few films might focus on the dreaded Kapos in the camps -- or on the elitist Jewish Council members who helped organize the transport groups -- or on the musicians/performers who entertained the Nazis -- all of whom hoped that they would be allowed to survived. But this film focuses on the Sonderkommandos -- the special workers -- who ushered Jewish victims to the gas chambers and burned the bodies. They too hoped to survive. But they must have known that they were going to be murdered eventually, if only because they had become the most dangerous witnesses to the cold Nazi horror. And the film begins by informing us that these groups of Sonderkommandos were never allowed to live longer than four months.

There are several reasons you must see this film. First, it is based on the diary of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew chosen by Josef Mengele to be the head pathologist at Auschwitz. And it dramaticizes the true attempt by Sonderkommandos to destroy the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Second, it focuses on ethical dilemnas faced by Dr. Nyiszli and the various Sonderkommandos who are trying to save themselves, their families, or ... just someone ... anyone. To say that these men were "co-opted" by the Nazis is to ignore the horror of the coercion, debasement and dehumanization that the Nazis inflicted -- not only on their prisoners, but upon themselves. One can imagine that some Sonderkommandos were selfish -- just as some Kapos were cruel and some doctors who assisted the Nazis were accomplices. But the question remains -- what would you have done in the face of such coercion and duress?

Third, the film -- based on Tim Blake Nelson's play -- is not the typical Holocaust film. There is very little redeeming behavior. There is no uplifting ending. The grey zone of moral ambiguity is presented as a cold, unfeeling, horrifying place -- where you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't -- which means that they are all damned! For the first third of the film, the script is obtuse, confusing, and disconnecting -- as it should be, considering that we may as well be taking the point of view of someone who just arrived on a train and entered the gates of hell. How can any of this make sense? In the opening scene, the Doctor is asked to save the life of a Jew who attempted suicide. How absurd can that be -- to save the life of someone who will sooner rather than later be murdered by the Nazis anyway?!

In conclusion, the play/film contains dialogue and scenes that are memorable. This is one of my favorites. One Jewish leader is demanding that they destroy the gas chambers as soon as possible. But another Jewish leader is still planning on escape, arguing that he has every right to expect to live. The first leader replies, something to the effect that, after what he has seen and done, he does not want to live!

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, April 18, 2004. Last night, after seeing a Holocaust documentary on Kurt Gerron ("Prisoner of Paradise") a friend of mine asked me what I would have done? I told her that it would depend on whom I was caring for -- my wife and my daughters -- my parents. It was then that I realized that I would have probably done everything that every Jew did during the Holocaust. I would have tried to save myself and my family. I would have abandoned others -- even betrayed others. I would have killed. I would have fought the Nazis. And I would have probably been killed for it. I would have despaired -- tried suicide -- become depressed, useless to everyone. I don't think I would have survived. I think the only question in that regard -- and it shows how irrelevant the question really is -- is "how soon would I have died." That is why I remember Holocaust Memorial Day -- so that I will never forget -- and I can help work towards a time when such a hell will not occur in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East, in the US, ... anywhere.
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Worth it for teenagers
18 April 2004
This Afterschool Special hit the target. Many teenagers are ashamed of their parents, for any number of reasons. Many teenagers think their parents are too strict. And many parents are uncertain how to raise a teenager. In this movie, the parents happen to be deaf -- and that adds another dimension to these issues of teenage and parental angst. The acting is believable. The kids are attractive -- and my teenage girls were able to identify with them. Rosanna Arquette is a gifted actress and this film displays her budding promise. Her facility in using sign language to communicate with her parents -- and even to scream at them -- was not only impressive -- it also added to the believability of their relationship, the frustration of parent-child communication in general, and her underlying love for her parents.
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Nothing like it
18 April 2004
There is nothing like this documentary. Sure there are documentaries about Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany -- but this is about escaping to Shanghai! And the community that they created there during World War II became uniquely multi-cultural -- with Germans, Poles, Iranians, etc. Under constant threat from the Japanese, treated like outcasts, and forced to sell businesses and live in a ghetto, their bravery in surviving these indignities matched that displayed by their co-religionists living in Europe. This is a outstanding documentary: an incredible series of stories, a historical document, and a personal account of hope, tragedy, hatred, and redemption.
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The Juggler (1953)
A hidden treasure
10 March 2004
I haven't seen this movie in years, although I remember seeing it when it was first available in the 50's when I was a child and later in the 90's when it was on TV. I recall that Douglas' acting was not as convincing as it could have been, but then the character was deeply disturbed by the War and resettlement in Israel. I recall that scenes of Israel were very convincing. I have relatives in Israel and some of them visited us in the 50's, so I learned a lot about life in Israel. Finally, I recall a wonderful child actor in this movie who does more than anyone else to draw us into the drama. Fifty years later, this film now takes on even more importance as an historical document. I hope it is released on DVD soon.
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Last Embrace (1979)
Something you didn't know about Jewish immigrants
11 August 2003
This is an engrossing thriller -- clearly in the vein established by Hitchcock -- and very much like Brian De Palma's carefully structured style. This is the first Jonathan Demme film I saw and I expected him to work more in this genre. Fortunately, he directed a cornucopeia of film in various styles that vary between intriguing and amazing: including "Melvin and Howard," "Stop Making Sense," "Philadelphia," and one of the best films for repeat viewing, "The Silence of the Lambs." This film stands out from the standard murder mystery in that it presents a non-standard view of Jews who immigrated to the US. To divulge more would spoil the film. Roy Scheider is perfect and Janet Margolin is beautiful. In addition , now -- nearly 25 years later -- it is fun watching Chris Walken, John Glover and Mandy Patinkin early in their careers. It is funny to realize that Margolin, Walken and Glover were all in "Annie Hall" two years earlier.
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Laughter and tears
31 July 2003
Based on the stories of Scholem Aleichem, this musical describes life in a Jewish shtetl in the Ukraine(?) around 1900 (?). It is filled with the joy of living a simple life -- an Orthodox Jewish life -- where the most important religious events are (not centered around the synagogue, but) centered around the home and life cycle events: birth, marriage, and (most important) the Sabbath. This movie distills the essence of Eastern European Judaism.

Interestingly, the stories were written before Hitler almost completely wiped out Eastern European Jewry --- which adds to the nostalgia of the piece. But Hitler failed in one respect: many Eastern European Jews succeeded in transplanting themselves to the US, where, in spite of overt antisemitism, they and their Judaism flourished because of our wonderful US Constitution and an American spirit that fostered individualism and rewarded hard work. So it is not surprising that Americans Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created this homage to Scholem Aleichem and the Eastern European Jews Hitler tried to destroy.

Many of the songs in this musical are now part of an American culture that is (now) willing to accept Yiddish phrases and Jewish concepts. Now, everyone knows that "L'Chayim" means "To Life." All young girls can identify with ... and laughingly reject ... "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Every American that has had to work hard every day enjoys singing "If I Were a Rich Man." And songs like "Sabbath prayer" and "Sunrise, Sunset" have become staples of Jewish liturgy as well as songs with which every parent can identify. My favorite song is "Far from the Home I Love."

Could this film have been any better? Perhaps. If you have not heard it, you must listen to the audio recording of the 1964 Original Broadway Cast of Fiddler on the Roof (from RCA), which has Zero Mostel (singing the part of Tevye) as well as Julia Migenes, Bert Convy, and Beatrice Arthur. I would have loved to see Zero Mostel in the movie, but Topol does an excellent job.

Final note: my mother was born in, grew up in, and emigrated from a small town in the Ukraine. Her father had died there. She had several older brothers who did not emigrate and were completely lost by 1945. The memories must have been terribly painful for her because she vehemently refused to speak of them. But she was must have been deeply affected by her childhood -- because she was a hard-working and dedicated mother -- willing to sacrifice her self in order to give her children the best possible future. She was even willing to sacrifice some of the sacred Jewish traditions -- in order to assure that her family survives and thrives. And that is just one of the movie's themes. Another theme: in the midst of pain and loss, there can still be hope.
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Ripui B'Hereg (1996)
Medical Ethics Documentary
29 July 2003
This chilling documentary brings to light an overlooked but crucial episode in Holocaust history - the Euthanasia Program. Instituted in 1939 by the Nazi's to eliminate the mentally handicapped, this systematic killing program was the pivotal first step toward mass extermination. The procedures developed for the Euthanasia Program were later used at Auschwitz and other death camps. The denial of the Hippocratic oath by German doctors was a crucial factor in creating the Nazi killing machine. As early as 1940, during a mercy killing operation (euthanasia), medical doctors and scientists had developed the first model of the gas chamber and crematorium. From planning and organizing through mass selections into actual killing, doctors misused their medical authority and provided a scientific legitimation for the Nazi killing machine. Without the initiative and cooperation of Nazi doctors, it is doubtful whether the death industry of the holocaust would have developed to the extent that it did. In the film, Aviram reveals the ambivalent position of the physician in society as both healer and harbinger of death. It conveys a sense of moral outrage at the idea of doctors applying their own moral judgment concerning which lives are worth living. `The doctor is the gatekeeper between life and death, so people tend to ask him for advice, and he wields that kind of life and death authority,' said Aviram. `But the doctor should not be a philosopher. His job is to preserve life.'
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Le train (1973)
Powerful, sad and romantic
29 July 2003
May 1940. The Germans invade France and thousands flee on trains heading for safety. A man is separated from his pregnant wife and young daughter. He meets a woman on the train and protects her. She is a German Jew -- suspected by the French -- and wanted by the Nazis.

With actual footage from WWII, this film feels more like a documentary, which of course adds to the drama. The characters -- even the minor ones -- are well drawn and evoke sympathy. Romy Schneider -- a beauty in so many other films -- displays her incredible acting prowess. And Jean-Louis Trintignant, who became well known after "Z" (1969) and "The Conformist" (1970), is incredible: low-keyed, soft-spoken and poignant. Can two people fall in love so quickly? Under such dire circumstances that keep getting worse, this strange romance seems so real.

For the most part, this is not a Holocaust film ... nor a film about Nazi atrocities. But the fear of German aggression is palpable. One character tells another -- as they see the results of the German aircraft bombing: "Close your eyes, you'll never know it happened." This is what all refugees desire -- to escape and forget. But this is a film that doesn't want you to forget the prejudice, selfishness, and other horrors of war. But it also reminds you of the gentleness and humankindness.

"It's them. I'd recognize that sound anywhere." I am reminded of the Holocaust survivor who could not sleep for years because of the sounds she heard in her dreams/nightmares.

The last seven minutes are some of the most frightening and intelligent minutes dealing with the Holocaust even put on film The scene is fraught with danger and filled with possibilities. The ethical dilemma will generate hours of thought and discussion.
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When will the guilty admit their guilt?
29 July 2003
This is a great film. It tries to tackle one of the most difficult periods of history ... and it contains some of the best performances on the silver screen: Spencer Tracy (as a seasoned judge in the twilight of his career), Burt Lancaster (as a respected scholarly jurist who cooperated with the Nazis), Maximillian Schell (as the young German defense attorney trying to prove that Nazi racial discrimination was no different from US racism), and Richard Widmark (as the jaded prosecuting attorney). This movie is about shame. It is about the shame that some people should have felt right after the war when the US decided that it was politically necessary to forgive Germans for their criminal conduct in order to obtain their help in fighting communism. The major Nuremberg Trial (of Goering, Hess, Speer et al) was over. The subsequent trials were not prosecuted by Justice Robert Jackson, but were handed over to other prosecutors. The American public and US Army were more frightened of Russia than Germany. Many people were sick and tired of hearing about the concentration camps and the horrors.

But this 1961 film foreshadowed the future Nazi revisionists and Holocaust-deniers. It dealt directly with the need and desire for many Germans and some Americans to refuse to face up to the many daily instances of injustice, cruelty, inhumanity, depravity and murder committed by ordinary Germans -- clerks, railroad employees, bankers, --- as well as the German military, courts, and industrial complex that relied upon slave labor.

It is a shame that Germans thought of the Nuremberg Trials as being unfair because the defendants were simply obeying their legal responsibilities during an ordinary war. But this was no ordinary war. This was genocide and everyone in Germany participated in it. As the film points out ... even the ordinary people who claimed that they did not know about the death camps were fooling or lying to themselves. They knew what Hitler had said about the Jews and promised to do to the Jews. They knew that their Jewish neighbors were taken away ... and with Jewish property taken by the state... the Jews were not coming back. If their crime was merely their willful ignorance of murder ... refusing to acknowledge it and refusing to prevent it ... then the continuing shame exposed by the film is that so many in Germany (as well as Austria, France, Ukraine, Poland, Belgium and other countries where many collaborated with the Germans) would continue to refuse to learn the full extent of the horror.

In addition, the film went further when Lancaster (the former Nazi judge) warns Schell (his defense lawyer) that his defense tactics are once again cruelly persecuting the defenseless. Perhaps it is too shameful for him to admit it, but Lancaster eventually does. He admits that he perverted justice and disregarded the rules of law and morality in collaborating with the Nazis and applying their discriminatory racial laws. Very few Nazis admitted their culpability. Albert Speer did. On the other hand, many Germans preferred to follow Goering's example: to argue that Germany was merely fighting an honorable war, not conducting a genocide.

My father was an interpreter with the US Army during the war. He had assisted in the interrogation of hundreds if not thousands of German prisoners of war. And he told me that not a single German soldier admitted being a member of the Nazi party. So who committed all the crimes? Who ran the death camps? Who arrested the victims and put them on the cattle cars? Why was it so hard to capture these culprits and bring them to trial? How did so many successfully hide in South America and even Europe? And how can it be that over fifty years after WWII anti-semitism is still prominent in Russia, Poland, France et al?

Judgment at Nuremberg is great because it doesn't focus on the Nazi leaders and the death camp commanders. It focuses on the judges who administered the laws, so it deals with the question whether there are laws that are so unjust that no judge should apply them. But is also focuses on the ordinary Germans ... the domestic servants, the Army widow. You could see that they felt some degree of shame ... but they were more concerned with trying to preserve some dignity and some love for their culture and heritage.

The final shame is felt by us ... the viewers ... when we identify with Spencer Tracy's character as he returns to (the normality of) the US. He can turn his back on Germany, the evidence of atrocities, and the need to prosecute any more criminals. Similarly, we turn our backs. Even Lancaster's admission of guilt is not satisfying in the face of so many who deny it. It took a million brave soldiers and workers in the US, Britain and other Allied countries to defeat the Nazis. It would take thousands to continue to prosecute the criminals for their barbarity. Unfortunately, the Allies did not have the stomach for that in the 1940's, 50's or 60's. It was not until 1983 that Nazi hunters were able to find Klaus Barbie. It was not until the 1990's when Swiss banks were willing to discuss claims they had been harboring gold and other valuables that the Nazis had stolen from their victims. There are still many unprosecuted claims against Germany for slave labor and against insurance companies for failing to pay claims. In 1961, as we see in Judgment at Nuremberg, there were many people who felt that enough had been said about the Holocaust. But the reason the subject seems inexhaustible is that we -- the courts, the politicians, the nations, the businesses, and the ordinary people -- have failed to deal with the full scope of criminal and immoral conduct.
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One of the best male fantasies
28 July 2003
One of the best films ever made, by a great director who knows the extent to which men will obsess and risk everything to fulfill their fantasies. And Sean Connery and Michael Caine are perfect in their roles as brash soldiers of fortune with a dream. There is much to commend in this film. Saeed Jaffrey (as Billy Fish) actually stole a couple of scenes ... as did Dodhmi Larbi (as Ootah) until he lost his head. But the real treasure is the timeless Kipling story ... about fearlessness and greed.
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