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The one-two punch
The Maine Jewish Film Festival offers films both heavy and light
BY BETH BROGAN
The sixth-annual Maine Jewish Film Festival opens March 6 with director Henry Beanís controversial film The Believer (2001). It is an auspicious introduction.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the film stars Ryan Gosling as a well spoken, neoĖNazi Jewish man, whose years of religious education fuel a violent, antiĖSemitic campaign.
Only a few flashbacks reveal how Danny Balint came to stray so far from the flock. In one, an adolescent Balint argues religion with a teacher. He is fixated on the story of Abraham, a man asked to sacrifice his son as a sign of his devotion to God, whom Balint calls a " power-drunk madman. "
" Fear of God makes you afraid of everything, " he says. " All the Jews are good at is being afraid, being sacrificed. "
Determined not to share that fate, Balint becomes a thug. As a grown man, he and several friends provoke a fight with a group of black men and are sentenced to sensitivity training with Holocaust survivors. At the session, an elderly Jewish man describes how his three-year-old son was taken from his arms by a Nazi guard and speared with a bayonet, then held on the weapon until he bled to death.
Outraged and overcome, Balint asks the old man what he did while the sergeant was impaling his son.
" Youíve never been tested like he has, " another survivor cries in the manís defense. " Here in this rich, safe country, it is easy to imagine oneself a hero. "
Envisioning himself the barbaric Nazi soldier, Balint is tormented by the story. Instead of empathizing with the old man, though, he grasps even more tightly to his identity as a neoĖNazi. Soon, he becomes involved in the attempted murder of another Jew and an unsuccessful bombing of a synagogue.
Balint is recruited by a couple (Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) organizing a fascist movement and begins a relationship with their daughter (Summer Phoenix). The young woman becomes intrigued by Balintís litany of hatred of the Jews and asks him to teach her what he knows of the language and rituals. In doing so, Balint exposes both his devotion and denial of the Jewish faith.
When a reporter meets with Balint and suggests he may expose him as a Jew, Gosling almost vibrates with the tension of the allegiances Balint must reconcile. As we wait to see if the second planned bombing of the synagogue will actually occur, other explosions are also inevitable.
In the fall of 1944, an uprising at the Auschwitz death camp resulted in the destruction of two of four crematoriums. The crematoriums were never rebuilt, and many lives were saved by the revolt, the story of which is told in Tim Blake Nelsonís acclaimed The Grey Zone (2001), another film at this yearís MJFF.
Among the Auschwitz prisoners involved in planning the uprising were the 12th Sonderkommando, who served as moles for the Nazi guards. These men betrayed fellow prisoners ó spying, loading and unloading corpses, feeding bodies into the crematorium fires ó in order to live better lives in the camps.
One influential spy for the Nazi guards was Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), who later wrote Auschwitz: A Doctorís Eyewitness Account, upon which the film is based. Also a prisoner at Auschwitz, in the film we see Nyiszli working for Dr. Mengele, and trading his information for the lives of his wife and daughter.
In one early scene, Hoffman, a mole played surprisingly well by David Arquette, helps herd prisoners into the gas chamber as he repeats in a reassuring voice, " The quicker you get undressed, the quicker youíll be clean, settled, and reunited with your families. "
" Heís a liar, " rages an elderly Jewish man. " I canít believe itís Jews doing this! Iím going to die but Iíll live longer than you ever will. Youíre already dead. At least Iíll die with dignity. "
Hoffman beats the old man to death for voicing his contempt, and later sits with lifeless eyes as he listens to the prisoners scream and beat on the locked doors of the gas chamber.
When Hoffman discovers a young girl who has somehow survived the gas chamber, he becomes obsessed with saving her from being burned alive with the other bodies. Soon, other of the Superkommando join him in this opportunity for redemption. Such a chance to prove to themselves that they arenít lost, despite their actions, becomes more important than life.
A few are reluctant to hide the girl, fearing punishment if they are caught. One man, played by Steve Buscemi, is desperate to live at all costs, perhaps even until the rumored impending liberation by the Russians.
" Itís my fucking life, " he says. " I hope I live ítil Iím 90. "
Two women, Rosa (Natasha Lyonne) and Dina (Mira Sorvino), are tortured by the Nazis to make them reveal their co-conspirators in the plot. Their refusal to choose their own lives over others is emphasized in a difficult scene in which they are forced to watch as fellow female prisoners are shot, one at a time, until one of the two reveals where the gunpowder came from.
" I could say I donít want to be doing this but that wouldnít be true, " the Nazi guard tells the women. " Itís less bodies to keep track of, feed . . . So do us a favor (and) keep silent. But you donít seem to be enjoying murdering your friends . . . to protect who? "
The choice to sacrifice lives ó their own and others ó in order to save even more from the crematoriums is not the only one the prisoners in The Grey Zone are required to make. Each chooses for himself what he will do to save his own life, to save the lives of his family. And each must decide whether or not there is meaning to be made from these decisions.
After almost two hours in The Grey Zone, you wonít be able to answer these questions any better than these Auschwitz prisoners, who, as one points out, are contaminated by the gray dust from the incinerators that has settled on their shoes and face and in their lungs.
Among the lighter fare at this yearís MJFF is Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, a 56-minute documentary film by director Deborah Dickson about two Jewish grandmothers who became lovers. Both Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz will be present at the March 10 screening.
Ruthie and Connie met in 1958 and were friends for 15 years as they raised their children in their close-knit Brooklyn community. Then, Ruthie says, " The shit hit the fan. " They fell in love, left their spouses, and have been together for more than 25 years.
Cooking noodles in the kitchen ( " Very good, honey " ) and walking arm-in-arm on a boardwalk, Ruthie and Connie recall their life together.
For Ruthie, realizing she was in love with a woman and coming out was particularly painful. She talks about the guilt she has over hurting her children, one of whom, she says, she is still estranged from. Ruthie also remembers the day when, unable to choose between leaving her children or leaving Connie, she instead planned to jump off the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Finally, Ruthie says, " I looked around and said, ĎIíve gotta go back to her.í "
Footage shows the two women celebrating at a SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) party, marching in the New York City Gay Pride Parade, and speaking at a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting. One clip is from an appearance on the original Donahue show, in which they argued in favor of benefits for domestic partners.
The film includes interviews with their lesbian rabbi, family members, and lifelong friends who all testify to the happy life Ruthie and Connie have built for themselves, but itís their way with each other that is the star of the film.
" Do you remember how stunning you were? " Connie asks Ruthie.
" Bogey and Bacall, " says Ruthie. " They have nothing on us. "
Beth Brogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen Wessler, former hate crimes prosecutor and director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine, will be the guest at the screening of The Believer at 8 p.m. Saturday at Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland. For information on other screenings, see www.mjff.org