“Denial” (2016)

denial

Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her attorneys, preparing for court room battle.

Those of us who have not lived under a rock all our lives are pretty familiar with certain truths; i.e., the world is round, astronauts actually landed on the moon, and atrocities like the Holocaust really happened.  But here’s a question:  What if you had to go into a court of law and prove that these things are true?  What facts would you use to make your case?

That is the challenge facing Holocaust expert Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in the docudrama Denial, based on a British libel case from 2000.  In the film, plaintiff David Irving (Timothy Spall), alleges that Ms. Lipstadt has characterized his writings and public statements as Holocaust denial in her book, Denying the Holocaust.  He sues both Lipstadt and her UK publisher, Penguin.

Lipstadt soon discovers the difficulty of her situation.  In British civil court, the defendant is the one who must prove their position, not the plaintiff.  Therefore, Lipstadt’s legal team must provide evidence that the Holocaust really happened, in order to defend her written statements in Denying the Holocaust that Irving systematically denied it.

Most legal dramas center on action in the courtroom.  Denial focuses on the fireworks behind the scenes; specifically Lipstadt’s disagreement with the way her lawyers wish to litigate the trial.  For example, she is horrified when her team tells her that neither she nor living Holocaust survivors will be allowed to testify.  Instead, the team will thoroughly review Irving’s diaries regarding involvement with rightwing groups, and they will search out forensic evidence related to the central point of the trial:  The massacre of Jews at Auschwitz.  The question is whether the lawyers’ measured plan of attack in the courtroom will work.  Is it a mistake to leave Lipstadt and the survivors out of the proceedings?

Weitz is pretty good as Lipstadt, but the real standouts are Timothy Spall as Irving and Tom Wilkinson as defense advocate Richard Rampton.  These two actors provide the most compelling in-court dramatics of the entire film.

It is most unfortunate that Denial was not in wide release, at least in my area.  It should be seen by everyone, especially young people.  The film teaches us a couple of lessons:   1) We must never forget the Holocaust.  2) In an age where fake news and “alternative facts” seem to run rampant all over the media, it is extremely important to carefully verify facts and information before drawing conclusions about anything, especially history.

*****

You can download Denial from amazon.com using the following link:

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You can also find Deborah Lipstadt’s book about the libel suit,  History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier,”  at amazon.com.

Pluses:  Excellent performances from Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson; moving scene concerning Auschwitz location.

Minus:  Sometimes lags in dramatic propulsion.

Cast:  Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Lack Lowden, Caren Pistorious, Alex Jennings.

Director:  Mick Jackson

Rating:  PG-13

In color.

Length:  110

Movies and the Jews: “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940)

dr-ehrlich

Edward G. Robinson as Nobel-prize winner Dr. Paul Ehrlich

The opening scene takes place in a medical consulting room in 19th century Germany.  A young clinician has given his patient some bad news.  Although nothing is said directly, both men know that the situation is grim.  Immediately after the patient walks into the lobby, a commotion ensues.  The man has committed suicide.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the clinician,  just told his patient that he has syphilis.  There is no cure.  The man could expect to develop horrible end-stage symptoms like blindness, paralysis, or dementia before the disease ultimately took his life.  In addition, a diagnosis of syphilis at this time in history meant excommunication from society, which is yet another death.  It’s no wonder that the patient chose to end his life right then and there.

In Warner Brother’s excellent bio pic, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, we see Nobel-prize winner Ehrlich (played by an unrecognizable Edward G. Robinson) spend the remainder of his life researching various methods of chemotherapy in order to cure disease, ultimately beating syphilis.  He describes each treatment as a “magic bullet” specifically modified to the nature of the disease to be treated.  Ehrlich accomplishes much on his way to the Nobel Prize:  A ground-breaking method for staining bacterial samples in order to facilitate identification and diagnosis; contribution to the development of an effective diphtheria serum; and development of an arsenic-based chemotherapy to treat syphilis.

Dr. Ehrlich’s road is not an easy one.  His research is dependent on the support of countless public and private donors.  But we’re talking Germany, Dr. Ehrlich is a Jew, and well….some are hesitant about donating to someone of the “Hebraic religion.”  In addition, Ehrlich has a most disconcerting habit of hiring the best in the medical field, regardless of race or creed.  At one point, some potential donors discover that he has a Japanese research scientist working in the laboratory….horrors!

paul_ehrlich_and_sahachiro_hata

The real Dr. Ehrlich with his colleague, Dr. Sahachiro Hata

Things really come to a head when Dr. Ehrlich visits a rich dowager (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) in order to solicit funds for his research.  A clip from the film shows people’s reactions when they find out what he is currently working on:

Fortunately, the dowager is far more open-minded than her guests, and she gives Dr. Ehrlich a generous amount of money.  This enables the doctor to successfully complete his experiments regarding syphilis chemotherapy.

*****

Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was a German-Jewish physician and scientist responsible for many innovations in the areas of hematology, immunology, and antimicrobial chemotherapy.  He is probably best known for his development of arsphenamine (Salvarsan), which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.  For his contributions to medicine, Ehrlich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1908.

At the time that Magic Bullet was released, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were in the process of destroying records of Ehrlich’s work; according to Hitler, “A scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless.”  All the more reason to see this film in remembrance of a brilliant Jewish scientist’s contribution to medicine and humanity.

You can purchase DVD’s of Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet on amazon.com by clicking the following link:

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*****

Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) is probably best known for his role as Enrico Bandello, the title character of 1931’s Little Caesar.  Robinson’s spectacular performance as the two-bit hoodlum who rises to the top of organized crime led to a series of gangster roles, most famously in 1948’s Key Largo.

It may be surprising to some that this “Italian hood” was born into a Romanian-Jewish family as Emanuel Goldenberg.  When “Manny” Goldenberg was 10 years old, his family emigrated from Romania to the U.S.A (New York City).  Goldenberg decided at a young age to become an actor.  He was known in New York circles as Edward G. Robinson, a versatile performer who could play almost any ethnic part (Robinson spoke several languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian, English and German).   One of Robinson’s favorite sayings was, “I’m not so much on face value (he was not a handsome man), but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.”

Robinson was eventually hired by Warner Brothers, and went on to portray one of Hollywood’s most famous criminals.  The endless parade of “hood” parts that followed made Robinson yearn for a different kind of role.  He jumped at the chance to play Dr. Ehrlich when the opportunity presented itself in 1940, and he did a magnificent job.

For more information on the life of Edward G. Robinson, read Alan L. Gansberg’s excellent biography, Little Caesar:  A Biography of Edward G. Robinson.  You can purchase a hard copy or Kindle version of the book at amazon.com by clicking on the following link:

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*****

Pluses:  Energetic performance by Edward G. Robinson; excellent plain-language explanations of the scientific theories behind Dr. Ehrlich’s research.

Minus:  Misogynistic portrayal of Dr. Ehrlich’s wife (Ruth Gordon).  She doesn’t even get to be with him when he dies.  Instead, Dr. Ehrlich asks her to step into the parlor and play the piano!

Cast:  Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Gordon, Otto Kruger, Donald Crisp

Director:  William Dieterle

Rating:  Unrated

Black and white

Length:  103 minutes

Sources:

“Paul Ehrlich.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  31  July 2016.  Web.  2 December 2016

“Edward G. Robinson.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   28 December 2016.  Web.  28 December 2016.

Gansberg, Alan L.  Little Caesar:  A Biography of Edward G. Robinson.  The Scarecrow Press, Inc. (2004)

 

 

 

 

 

Movies and the Jews: Kirk Douglas’ 100th

kirk-douglas

On December 9th, it was reported that a Mr. Issur Danielovitch celebrated his 100th birthday.  This probably would not have seemed like big news to most people, except for the fact that many of us know Mr. Danielovitch as Kirk Douglas.

Douglas, who starred in more than 90 movies and is considered one of the last of the Golden Age Hollywood actors, was born on December 9, 1916 to Jewish immigrants from Belarus.  Douglas’ childhood was a difficult one.  In his first autobiography The Ragman’s Son, he states the following:

“My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nickels, and dimes….Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder.  And I was the ragman’s son.”

To keep from starving, the young Douglas had to work odd jobs to contribute money to his family.  He was determined to escape from the life of poverty he had been born into, and eventually worked his way into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City via scholarship.  While there, he met fellow student and future movie star Lauren Bacall.  This meeting was fortuitous, as Bacall later helped Douglas to land his first major movie role alongside Barbara Stanwyck in 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  From that point on, Douglas’ good looks, star quality, and ambition helped him in becoming a real power player in Hollywood.

There are so many roles for which Douglas is well-known, among them  Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory (1957), and of course the title character in Spartacus (1960).  However, Douglas’ favorite role was that of a modern day cowboy in a relatively little-known film, 1962’s Lonely Are The Brave.

The opening scene of Lonely is pretty typical of a western:  We see a panoramic view of a desert with cactus, a saddle, a campfire, a sleeping cowboy….and suddenly, we hear the sound of jet planes overhead.  This is the world of Jack Burns, an independent, roving cowhand who feels more and more stifled by fences, freeways, and other aspects of modern civilization.  He eventually runs afoul of the law, and is chased through the wilderness by sheriff’s deputies intent on catching him before he can ride across the border to Mexico.  In one surrealistic sequence, we witness Burns astride his palomino, every inch the old-time cowboy, as he’s being pursued by helicopters.

This is one of Douglas’ best films, but unfortunately the story does not end happily.  Thus, I’m not sure that I can recommend it for holiday viewing.  You might instead enjoy one of Douglas few comedic performances as a money-strapped English professor in A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  The plot of this witty film concerns a note from the town floozy to three wives, informing them that she’s running off with one of their husbands.  The three women spend the rest of the movie wondering who’ll be going home to an empty house.  Despite the ominous premise, we laugh a lot on the way to a pleasant enough ending.  Meanwhile, we get to see some fine performances from Douglas, Ann Southern, Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas, and Jeffrey Lynn.

You can purchase Lonely are the Brave on amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:

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You can purchase A Letter to Three Wives on amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DOB3MN4/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=spcooperveriz-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=B00DOB3MN4&linkId=1987542efd5e51fac8128e355cbe809e

You can purchase Douglas’ autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, on amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0671637177/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=spcooperveriz-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=0671637177&linkId=38938cefac2b086f96076ba0e4b62f97

Sources:

“Kirk Douglas”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  10 November 2016.  Web.  12 December 2016.

Douglas, Kirk.  The Ragman’s Son.  Simon and Schuster (1988)

 

 

Movies and the Jews: Der Dybbuk (1937)

der-dybbuk

Leah the Bride’s pas de deux with Death

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”  – From the Song of Songs

In celebration of Hanukkah, I will be writing this month about classics of Jewish cinema.

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” is one of the most celebrated statements of love from the Hebrew Bible’s Song of Songs, also known as Songs of Solomon in the Christian Old Testament.  However, the phrase takes on a sinister meaning in this 1937 Yiddish film, whose subject is a young bride possessed by the soul of her dead lover.

Der Dybbuk is a film from Poland based on S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk.  Ansky’s play, originally written in 1914, was the result of years of research concerning folktales of the Russian and Ukrainian Hassidic Jews.  The play has long been considered a seminal work of the Yiddish theatre.

Storyline:  Two friends (Nisan and Sender) pledge that their children will marry each other.  Years later, when Nisan’s son Chanan shows up at Sender’s doorstep, Sender reneges on the promise and arranges to have his daughter Leah marry a rich suitor.  In desperation,  Chanan calls upon Satan to ensure that he will have the young maiden as his own, and he dies.  During the wedding ceremony, Leah is suddenly possessed by Chanan’s spirit (the dybbuk).  The situation is mitigated by a Jewish exorcist, who successfully expels the dybbuk.  However, Leah ends up choosing to die in order to be with her soulmate, Chanan, in the next world.

As a horror/fantasy offering, the 1937 film of the play is rather long and somewhat static, with all actors using old-fashioned silent movie acting technique.  However, it’s worth everything to see the wedding scene, which is a set piece that plays as a parody of the dance sequences in The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky.  Here we see a strange, Expressionistic ballet presented by peasants, poor people, and the wedding party.  The most chilling scene features a variation on the medieval Dance of Death, where Leah the Bride performs a pas de deux with an anonymous person wearing a death mask.

****

This film offers an invaluable time capsule concerning Jewish Chassidic life as it existed prior to the Holocaust.  For example, we get to hear Nigunim, Jewish songs without words, throughout the film, as well as lovely dance melodies.  Who knows how much of this music was lost in the tragedy that was to follow just a few years after The Dybbuk was filmed.

One happy outcome to this story:  The actors who played Leah (Lili Liliana) and Chanan (Leon Liebgold) actually fell in love and remained married for more than fifty years.

You can purchase a DVD of The Dybbuk at amazon.com through the following link:

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I would strongly recommend reading Kenneth Turan’s Not to be Missed:  Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film for more information on The Dybbuk’s history.  In case you’re not familiar with Turan:  He is the chief film critic for the L.A. Times, and a fine writer.  I am indebted to him for introducing me to this film.  You can purchase a hard copy or Kindle version of Turan’s book through the following link:

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Pluses:  Evocative expressionistic cinematography; great wedding scene; fascinating story

Minus:  Silent movie-style acting; some sections not subtitled.

Cast:  Abraham Morewski, Ajzyk Samberg, Mojzesz Lipman, Lili Liliana, Leon Liebgold

Director:  Michal Waszynski

Rating:  Unrated

Black and White

Country of origin:  Poland

Language:  Yiddish, with English subtitles

Length:  125 minutes (some versions are shorter)

Sources:

“The Dybbuk (film)”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  813 November 2016.  Web.  6 December 2016.

Turan, Kenneth.  Not to be Missed:  Fifty-Four Favorites from a Lifetime of Film.  PublicAffairs New York (Copyright 2014)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Golem (1920, silent film)

golem2

Long before author Mary Shelley thought up the infamous Frankenstein monster, there existed a legend in Jewish folklore concerning an inanimate lump of clay brought to life in order to save the Jews.  This was the legend of the Golem.

The most famous version of this tale comes from medieval Prague:  The Jewish population is in danger of banishment by local Christian authorities.  In response, the head rabbi of Prague creates the Golem for protection against the oppressors.  The plan works, and the Jews are safe…for a while.  Unfortunately, the rabbi loses control of his creation, and the Golem goes on a murderous rampage.

The story of the Golem was first brought to the screen in 1915 by German director Paul Wegener, who also played the title role.  Although the 1915 film was lost, Wegener made another Golem film in 1920 which survives today.

The Golem essentially follows the old Prague legend, and is photographed in German expressionist style.  All of the scenes, especially the interiors, emphasize sharp angles and exaggerated form.  For example, in an early scene we see a spiral staircase descending within what looks like a cutaway of a conch shell.  Buildings and towers are vertically elongated to the point of surrealism.  The lighting in each scene is done in chiaroscuro, thus heightening the eeriness of the tale.  Even without subtitles or plot, each section in this film is fascinating to look at.

For those interested in early examples of cinematographer Karl Freund’s work, as well as examples of German expressionist film style, I would strongly recommend this picture.  Although I found a free copy on youtube.com, I must say that the print looked somewhat worn.  I checked out amazon.com and found that there is a restored version of the film on DVD.  Either way, it’s worth a view.

Note:  Karl Freund, who shot The Golem, was also known for photographing director Fritz Lang’s science fiction movie Metropolis (1927) and Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931).  He left Europe for America in 1929.  Freund, who was Jewish, returned to Germany in 1937 and brought his daughter Gerda back to the U.S.  By doing so, he almost certainly saved her from death in the Nazi concentration camps.

Pluses:  Magnificent cinematography, unique plot

Minus:  YouTube version not good.  Look for DVD on amazon.com

Cast:  Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Muthel

Director:  Paul Wegener

Rating:  Unrated

Black and White

Length:  91 minutes

Sources:

“Karl Freund”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  8 October 2016.  Web.  28 October 2016.

“Golem” Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  28 October 2016.  Web.  28 October 2016.

Image obtained through Bing Public Domain.

 

 

 

 

 

My Favorite Gene Wilder Moment…What’s Yours?

Gene Wilder

So much has already been written about Gene Wilder in the media that I hesitate to add anything more about his life in this blog.  Suffice to say that today the L.A. Times printed a couple of excellent articles about his life and career.  Please read them.

I will stick to writing about my favorite Gene Wilder film.  That has to be, hands down, the 1968 version of The Producers.  If you are not familiar with the plot, it’s simple and absolutely absurd:  Two men decide to produce a play so bad that it will close the first night.  They sell 25,000% to the backers, intending to leave town with the money after the play tanks.  There’s just one problem:  Their show accidently becomes a hit!

So many funny moments in that film, and one of the funniest is when Wilder, playing meek accountant Leo Bloom, goes absolutely berserk  in front of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialistock because he has just realized the gravity of their crime.

BLOOM:  I’m hysterical.  I’m having hysterics.  I’m hysterical….

BIALISTOCK:  [throws water on Bloom]

BLOOM:  I’m wet.  I’m wet.  I’m hysterical, and I’m wet!

BIALISTOCK: [slaps Bloom]

BLOOM:  I’m in pain.  And I’m wet.  And I’m still hysterical!

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What’s your favorite Gene Wilder moment?  Please leave in comment section.

Source of photo:

By Towpilot – <span class=”int-own-work” lang=”en”>Own work</span>, <a title=”Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0″ href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1137138″>https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1137138</a&gt;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valuing Beliefs over Career: Steven Hill, TV and Movie Actor, Dead at 94

Steven_Hill_Dan_Briggs_Mission_Impossible

Steven Hill, best known to crime story aficionados as crusty D.A. Adam Schiff on the long-running drama series Law and Order, passed away today at the age of 94.  I mention Hill on this page because in addition to his TV career, he had minor parts in classic movies listed below.

Hill was born Solomon Krakovsky on February 24, 1922.  He got his big break in show business when he was cast in the supporting part of “Stefanowski” in the 1948 Broadway production of Mr. Roberts.

He was one of the first members of the Actor’s Studio, along with Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Lee J. Cobb, and Geraldine Page.

Hill’s first movie was 1950’s A Lady Without Passport, which starred Hedy Lamarr and John Hodiak.  He also played supporting parts in 1958’s The Goddess (which starred Kim Stanley) and 1963’s A Child is Waiting (which starred Judy Garland).

Hill credits his role as Sigmund Freud in a 1961 stage production of A Far Country as motivation towards becoming a more observant Jew.  At one point in the play, another character screams at the Freud character, “You are a Jew!”  In response to this dramatic moment, Hill the actor began seriously considering his religion and what it meant to practice Judaism.  He began to follow a kosher diet and did not work on Shabbat.  The latter observance affected his stage career, because he could not work on Friday and during Saturday matinees.

Those of us who are a certain age certainly remember the opening line of the TV show, Mission Impossible,  “Good morning Mr. Phelps.”  However, during the first season of that show, the line was, “Good morning Mr. Briggs.”  Captain Daniel Briggs, the original head of the Mission Impossible team, was played by Steven Hill.  By Season Two, Hill was replaced by Peter Graves, who played Phelps.

After Mission Impossible, Hill left show business for about 10 years.  Starting in 1977, he acted in several movies.  Finally, during the 1990’s Hill landed the role on Law and Order for which he is so famous.

For more information regarding the career of Steven Hill, see the following sources:

Steven Hill.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  23 August 2016.  Web.  23 August 2016.

“Signoff; On ‘Law and Order,’ a Real Idealist”, The New York Times, 2 February 1996.  Web.  nytimes.com.  23 August 2016.

Gates, Anita.  “Steven Hill,” The New York Times, 23 August 2016.  Web.  nytimes.com.  23 August 2016.

Image from Wikimedia Public Domain.