There are stories yet unheard. Each is unique, each is terrible, yet they all should be heard.
That is the foremost message to be gleaned from Claude Lanzmann’s four new films, which will be shown as a special event in this year’s New York Film Festival.
The quartet, collectively titled “The Four Sisters,” fills in a lacuna in Lanzmann’s sweeping history of the Nazis’ murder of European Jews recounted in “Shoah” (1985) and several subsequent films that focus on specific aspects of the situation of the Jews and their pitifully few allies during the events of 1941-45. Of course, as the films that deal with Poland make abundantly clear, although the “Final Solution” wasn’t unleashed until late 1941, the Nazis and their local allies were killing Jewish civilians from the outbreak of the war two years earlier.
The films have a distinctly valedictory feel. Lanzmann is, after all, in his early 90s and, after having written and directed nine films about the Shoah with a total running time of 21 hours, 24 minutes, a feeling of summation is inevitable. Significantly, they are the first of his films on the subject to focus on the experience of women witnesses, and each offers a glimpse of a part of the death universe of the ghettos and camps that was absent from Lanzmann’s previous films.
Like the other films he has made since “Shoah,” the actual video material is drawn from interviews Lanzmann he conducted in the 1970s as he was working on that film; but because of its focus on the mechanisms of the death camps, these interviews didn’t fit into it.
“The Hippocratic Oath” features Ruth Elias, who appeared briefly in “Shoah.” She talks about her experience in Terezin and Auschwitz, a reminiscence that concludes with one of the most harrowing tales of Josef Mengele I have ever heard. “Baluty” takes its name from the Lodz slum that was converted into the Jewish ghetto of that city after the Nazi occupation, and focuses on the story of Paula Biren, a tale that includes previously unheard stories of Chaim Rumkowski, “the King of the Ghetto,” and her blunt recollections of death and corruption in Lodz under the Germans. Ada Lichtman, the central figure of “The Merry Flea,” was imprisoned in Sobibor, where she ended up working in the SS men’s residence that gives the film its bleakly ironic name. “Noah’s Ark” is the story of Hannah Marton, also briefly interviewed in “Shoah,” in which she tells the story of the trainload of Zionists whose rescue was the result of negotiations between Rudolf Kastner and Adolf Eichmann.
The longest of the films, “Hippocratic,” has a running time of a modest 89 minutes, while the other three are about an hour apiece. Like the other short films that Lanzmann has made on the Holocaust, they have a force that is wholly disproportionate to their brevity; this is not only due to the subject material, but also to the fact that each of these films is a fine example of both Lanzmann’s skill as an interviewer and the excellence of his editor Chantal Hymans.
But the real impact of these films is one I cannot calculate in cinematic terms alone. It is pointless to invoke phrases like “devastating experience” or “indomitable human spirit.” To do so cheapens the reality of the testimony these four women offer and minimizes the historical importance of their words.
It seems almost foolish to discuss the Festival’s fiction films in the same breath as “The Four Sisters.” It is, of course, the peculiar nature of film festivals not based on themes or genres that you get awkward juxtapositions, although Claude Lanzmann’s work invariably provides the most difficult ones. That said, this year’s New York Film Festival has several lighter offerings that are of considerable cinematic value and which sport Jewish protagonists of varying shades.
Two of the most appealing of these feature films are both largely comic in tone but deeply serious in subtext. Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is a graceful and very, very funny examination of a dysfunctional Jewish family that, as Baumbach noted in the press conference, “has replaced religion with art as a subject of worship.” Aging sculptor Harold (Dustin Hoffman at his most puckish), an all-but-forgotten minor talent, dominates and manipulates his children by several marriages — Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), each of whom feels he or she lets the old boy down by not pursuing a life in the arts. Over several months, this ill-matched quartet, joined by Harold’s dotty current wife Maureen (an unrecognizable but delightful Emma Thompson) and various artist friends and rivals, works through the issues of family and death, failure and disappointment.
Baumbach provides an architecturally elegant structure for the movie, treating it as a series of short stories redolent of the tragicomic genius of Malamud. He elicits astonishingly nuanced performances from his leads, with particularly rich work from Stiller and Sandler as half-brothers who eye one another warily yet not unaffectionately. The result is Baumbach’s best film to date, a graceful and balanced rumination on the tormented joys of good and bad parenting and whatever one calls the act of being on the other end of that process.
Arnaud Desplechin has almost always had strong Jewish subtext and subplots rumbling through his films. (“Esther Kahn,” his 2000 film featuring a turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish slum in London, put the Jewish content front-and-center). His latest work, “Ismael’s Ghosts,” continues in that vein, with noted filmmaker Ismael (Mathieu Amalric, wonderful as usual) and his famous Jewish writer father-in-law Henri Bloom (New Wave stalwart Laszlo Szabo) dealing with the sudden reappearance of Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), Ismael’s long-vanished wife and Henri’s daughter. At the same time, Ismael is struggling with his latest film, a spy thriller that may be based on the life of his brother Ivan (Louis Garrel).
Desplechin throws the elements of the film together in a wild gumbo that is equal parts Hitchcock a la “Vertigo” and “Marnie,” Blake Edwards circa “The Party” and his own brand of quirky romanticism with a darkly comic undertone. The Edwardian farce of the filmmaking process and Ismael’s professional and mental breakdown is hilarious, and the lush romanticism of the Hitchcockian elements is engaging. The spy material is suitable cryptic, reminiscent of “Homeland” or Le Carre, but with just enough bumptious genre-bending to keep the audience off-balance. The problem is that it is not clear how the elements in this stew fit together. The individual tastes are delicious, but the mix of flavors is too confusing to digest on a single viewing.
This year’s New York Film Festival runs through Oct. 15 at Lincoln Center. For information go to www.filmlinc.org.
“The Four Sisters” screening schedule: “The Hippocratic Oath,” screens Sunday, Oct. 8, 11:30 a.m., Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. “Baluty” screens Sunday, Oct. 8, 2 p.m., Walter Reade Theater. “The Merry Flea” and “Noah’s Ark” screen Tuesday, Oct. 10, 6 p.m., Francesca Beale Theater (Eleanor Bunin Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.).
“The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)” opens nationwide in theaters Oct. 13 (it screened at the festival earlier this week.)
“Ismael’s Ghosts” screen Friday, Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. and Sat., Oct. 14 at noon at Alice Tully Hall (Broadway and 65th Street).