Jews on Jews: A 6,000-Year Cinematic Retrospective

Jews on film. It's a tradition nearly as old as the movies themselves, reaching back as far as the 1920 German expressionist classic The Golem: How He Came Into the World, about an unholy clay Jewenstein terrorizing the citizens of the Prague ghetto. Seven years later the talkies were born, with the story of davening pop superstar Jakie Rabinowitz in The Jazz Singer. But if you look at the history of film, Jew-made movies about Jews are generally few and far between -- certainly in comparison with the number of Jews who had the authority to greenlight them.

Call it assimilationism (or self-loathing, as some might put it), or maybe it was a matter of commerce -- though William Wyler, who directed Ben Hur and Funny Girl, was one Jewish director who could turn a fundamentally Jewish story into a blockbuster.

The announcement that David Mamet would be writing and directing a new take on The Diary of Anne Frank for Disney seemed at once stunningly unlikely and utterly obvious: Unlikely because Mamet is pretty far down on the list of filmmakers I'd have pictured working for Disney, or for that matter successfully crawling inside the mind of an optimistic and imaginative 13-year-old girl; and obvious because the project would allow him to indulge his well-established views on the persistence of anti-Semitism and the moral implications of depicting the Holocaust. To a lesser extent, there's also something in the very essence of the story -- two families' elaborate attempt at pulling one over on Nazis -- the speaks to Mamet's ongoing obsession with grifts and cons. In any case, I eagerly await his "own original take," as Variety put it, and so long as he resists any impulses to reposition it as a he said/she said game of simmering sexual politics between Mrs. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel, I think he'll breathe life into the tale.

Who knows -- maybe it'll even bring home some Oscars. As Ricky Gervais put it at the Golden Globes podium last year, "I told you to do a Holocaust movie, Kate." Yes, Holocaust movies are now the rage, and Hollywood loves to throw trophies at them. But back in 1965, the topic had not yet been broached. That was the year Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker was released, and it has the honor of being the first American film on the topic. Based on the novel of the same name, it starred Rod Steiger as a German-Jewish academic works at a pawn shop in Harlem, trying to repress memories of watching his family be violated and murdered in a concentration camp. Beyond launching the careers of both Lumet and Steiger, it also ushered in a new era of Jewish film by Jewish filmmakers ready to tackle the specter of anti-Semitism and their conflicting relationships to their own identities.

Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof would follow in 1971 -- a musical comedy, yes, but with a dark third act focusing on death and dispersion. Woody Allen, of course, was a game-changer in that his carefully cultivated persona of the neurotic, horny and bumbling Jew was his most fundamental motif, which he wove throughout all of his films, at once spinning and re-appropriating the stereotype in such a way as to make it not just desirable -- who wouldn't want to chase lobsters around a kitchen with Diane Keaton? -- but also deflating unspoken tension and anxieties using humor. ("You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew.")

It is to my mind "Mandingo" for Jews. "Mandingo" was a slave epic made for those interested in watching well-built black men being mistreated. "Schindler's List" is another example of emotional pornography. [...] The Nazis are the waxed-mustachioed villain, and the Jews are the daughter. The film is as far from philo-Semitism as concern for the girl on the tracks is from feminism. "Schindler's List" is an exploitation film.

That is Mamet, writing about Steven Spielberg's watershed Holocaust drama Schindler's List in his book, Make-Believe Town. The film was the first to recreate a mass gas chamber execution at Auschwitz, and Spielberg admitted some scenes were so painful -- particularly one where aging Jews are forced to run naked while being selected by Nazi doctors to go to Auschwitz -- that he himself couldn't bear to watch as his D.P. Janusz Kamiński shot them. I wonder what Mamet would make of Inglourious Basterds, then -- Quentin Tarantino's very openly exploitative Holocaust revenge comedy, which is currently garnering tepid reviews, including the nostril-pinching indignation of Jeff Wells, who dismissed it as "morally disgusting."

Or, what, for that matter, he'd think of Eli Roth -- the film's Jew-within-a-Jew, who also delighted in shooting Stolz der Nation, the fake Nazi propaganda film that figures centrally to Basterds' plot. "After Hostel 2, I thought 'God, what can I make that's more offensive and upsetting than this film,'" he said in a recent interview. "But somehow I did it with Nation's Pride." Oy.

After exploring an extended Euro period featuring plenty of nubile, if emotionally unstable, young women but with nary a Jew to be found, Allen returned to the flock with this year's Whatever Works. Based on a script he wrote in the 1970s for Zero Mostel, the film only intermittently worked, however, despite the best efforts of his latest Jewish screen surrogate, Larry David, to sell the material. (Arguably TV's greatest Jew -- a topic for another day.) Perhaps the Jews' last hope falls to the Coen Brothers, whose most Jewish film is their next: A Serious Man is based on their childhoods living in an academic Jewish family in the very Jewish neighborhood of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Its syncopated trailer, at least, suggests that the brothers have new things to say about those old Jewish cinema standbys: self-loathing, recurring suffering, and a God whose track-record leaves something to be desired. ♦


  • mcbeachy says:

    This may be an unpopular comment to make, but surely Barbra Streisand deserves at least a mention as far as a Jew making movies about Jews.
    I'm sitting here trying to think of other women directors who made Jewish themes a priority in their films, but I can't think of any. (Perhaps the well-schooled Movieliners can fill me in on this one.) Seems a shame that the female POV about being Jewish would be so noticeably absent.
    I suddenly had a flash of Shiela Levine is Alive and Living in New York.

  • mcbeachy says:

    Sheila. Suddenly it has become one of those words that I have no idea how it is spelled.

  • Seth Abramovitch says:

    You're right -- Yentl definitely deserves a mention. But why did she stop making movies? Even Lumet is still at it.

  • mcbeachy says:

    Maybe the Prince of Tides experience did her in. I remember that year how her movie was nominated for a ton of Academy Awards but, noticeably, not Best Director.
    Here's a hypothesis: women in Hollywood are not as rewarded for being Jewish as the men are. She's one of the few women in LA (at least early on) who always maintained a Jewish identity. I always liked that about her -- that she kept her nose.

  • Zombie says:

    Apparently, Norman Jewison isn't Jewish — although everyone thinks he is. I heard him talk about it in an interview.