2nd Annual Israel Film Center Festival: Patrick Stewart, Cranes, and Surviving the Holocaust

Thanks to Manhattan’s favorite cultural philanthropist, Carole Zabar  -- you know her rugelach -- a second year of the Israel Film Center Festival will be unspooling at various venues around the city, but mainly at The Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side from June 12th through June 19th.

A highlight of the fest is Yael Reuveny’s engrossing three-generation exploration of her family’s post-Holocaust existence, Farewell, Herr Schwarz, a paean to those trying to come to terms with the past.

Michla Schwarz, Yael’s grandmother, was the lone member of her family to survive the Holocaust, or so she thought. Immigrating to Israel, she married, raised a family, and died emotionally scarred with an unyielding hatred for everything German. Her daughter Etty, who remembered her mother screaming at night and being emotionally distant, is also enveloped in this decades-old enmity.

But one day just before Michla’s death, a letter arrives from Germany from an unknown relative. Apparently, there was another survivor. Michla’s brother. But why hadn’t he contacted his sister? And why did he remain in the town of Schlieben, walking distance from the concentration camp he had been imprisoned in? And why had he changed his Yiddish name to Peter, married a gentile whose brother had been a German soldier, and then never told his children that he was Jewish? And what did “Peter” feel each year when he decorated the family Christmas tree? 

Yael, who has moved to Germany, explores these issues while traveling back and forth to Israel to capture her kin’s reactions to her latest discoveries. The problem is her great-uncle is already dead and her only resources to fathoming his psyche are his amusingly insensitive sister-in-law, his neighbors, and his children, one whose son has converted to Judaism and plans to move to Jerusalem. So is the circle unbroken or just slightly mended?

A complex consideration of what it is to be Jewish and the lengthy aftereffects of atrocities perpetuated on one’s past generations, Farewell, Herr Schwarz is an important addition to Holocaust cinema.

Evgeny Ruman’s Igor & the Crane’s Journey, an entertaining children’s film, is the tale of an 11-year-old Russian lad (Itai Shcherback), his divorced parents, and the bird that eventually brings them emotional stability.

Firstly, you should know, cranes mate for life and their chicks remain with them until their next breeding season. Secondly, Peter, Igor’s ornithologist pop, is the world’s premier expert on cranes, tracking the birds’ migration from Russia to Israel to Africa, causing him to be an absent dad. Thirdly, Tanya, Igor’s mom, just got a job as a choirmaster in Israel, so Igor’s not only going to be less one parent, but less all of his Russian pals.  Why can’t humans be stable like cranes? the boy ponders.

Well, on their final dad-son get-together before the move, a bird-watching affair, Peter asks Igor to name a newly hatched crane. Igor opts for Karl the Great. Dad then dubs the parental cranes John and Yoko. The drama impinges on whether the feathered threesome will complete their migration without a hitch? Of course not.  And will Igor save the day and in doing so win the friendship of all of his new Israeli school friends while bonding with his parents and getting his first kiss from the charming Vered, a cute classmate? Without a doubt.

While not breaking any new ground, Igor is a captivating narrative without pretensions. Well paced and directed with delightful cartooning intercut into the action, this is perfect family fare.

The opening night feature, Reshef Levi’s Hunting Elephants, though, is far from perfect for anyone. This misogynistic, often painfully sloppy, broad farce is representative of early Israeli cinema before the country started offering world-class offerings year after year. Why go backwards?

Here’s a retreading of Martin Brest’s Going in Style (1979), that gleefully starred three grand pros -- George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg -- as oldsters who rob a bank because they have nothing to lose. Now that was a delightful, humane comedy.

Levi has reconfigured the plotline, adding 12-year-old Jonathan (Gil Bank) as the instigator of the crime.

The story now begins with Jonathan’s dad (Tzvika Hadar), a bank guard and also the designer of the bank’s security system, working overtime. Stressed out and underpaid, he has a fatal heart attack at work in the opening moments of the film with his son by his side.

Seeking revenge for exploiting his father and also needing to get money so his mother won’t have to bed the bank manager for financial support, Jonathan plans a heist involving his grandfather who’s in an old age home, another oldster, and his comatose grandmother’s scheming British brother (Patrick Stewart) who was starring in a Star Wars version of Hamlet in England before he ran out of cash and was forced to skedaddle to the Holy Land.

It’s not a bad premise, but sadly Hunting for Elephants, which stars some of Israel's top actors plus the always excellent Stewart, is burdened by a truly horrendous, screechingly anti-feminist screenplay with so many holes in it that it's impossible to believe from the get-go, let alone want to believe.

Worse is the constant cutting back and forth with various characters commenting on the robbery that supposedly already occurred. These scenes seem tossed in at the last moment, a desperate move possibly because the original cut of the film made no sense.

But one of the most godawful moments in Hunting Elephants and possibly in any film of the past decade occurs where grandpa lifts up his insensate wife from her bed and dances with her with her head and arms flopping about. Meant to be moving, the scene is simply grotesque.

If that weren’t enough, there’s the depiction of geriatrics as sex-crazed lunatics who are trying to train a 12-year-old boy to be perv like themselves. Try out the following lines on your offspring:

"Life begins the first time a girl gives it to you and ends the last time you get it." 

“Nobody loves anybody so much they won’t sleep with another woman.”

“Well, boy, has anyone let you touch their cherries yet?”

(Said about an overly friendly, elderly female resident in the old age home) “I rather be raped by baboons.”

(Said of a young nurse’s aide in a low-cut outfit) “Take a look at that. She’s a nymphomaniac. She hasn’t had any since last night, and she needs more and more. She needs someone to rock her world with a 13-incher.”

Only Mr. Stewart rises above this puerile mess with grace and wit. I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote his own dialogue because he often seems to have walked in from another, much better picture.

Happily, other offerings at this Festival seem to show more promise, and there will be side events including one honoring actor Yehoram Gaon for his career, a conversation with an Israeli hip-hop singer on secular culture in Jerusalem, plus much more. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writinggroup FlashPoint.

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