One of the most thankless tasks of a film critic is to troll around the depths and breadth of a festival looking for a theme that unites all the films on offer. Of course, the New York Jewish Film Festival’s entries all reflect on the Jewish experience in some way — “Doh,” as Homer Simpson might say — but this year there seems to be a bit more than that going on. Many, indeed most of the films in this year’s festival seem to be imbued with the spirit of a particularly resilient and indomitable Jewish womanhood. Push aside all the Jewish mother jokes, the Jewish American Princess jokes, all that self-defiling “comical” claptrap, and you find that she ferocity with which Jewish women have defended their heritage and their families is a significant reason why the Jews have survived for four millennia.
Consider the examples of Ruth Gruber and Pannonica Rothschild, the subject of two of the festival’s feature-length documentaries.
The films are as dissimilar as their heroines. “Ahead of Time” is a precise and economical portrait of Gruber, a representative of crusading journalism at its best. Now 98 and still active, Gruber is the product of, she recounts with a grin, “a shtetl called Brooklyn. … Everybody there was Jewish.” She was a prodigy who entered NYU at 15 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne at 20. But the attractions of the academy couldn’t compete with the turmoil of worldwide depression, the New Deal at home and the rise of Fascism in Europe. Her father had urged her, “You have to have a career.” So she wrote. And wrote. And still writes.
Bob Richman, an excellent cinematographer who has worked extensively in independent film, has chosen a wonderful subject for his directorial debut, and he is smart enough to let Gruber do most of the talking; the film takes her from her Brooklyn childhood through her precocious academic triumphs, her burgeoning writing career, a stint working for Harold Ickes to her peerless coverage of the persecution of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and the voyage of the “Exodus 1947.” In short, “Ahead of Time” is an exemplary biographical documentary, and Ruth Gruber is a national treasure.
Hannah Rothschild’s great-aunt is a treasure, too, albeit of a rather different kind. Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Konigswarter was one of those Rothschilds. You know, the banking, wine-growing Rothschilds? She was also a fervent and generous supporter of modern jazz and long-time lover of Thelonious Monk, one of the great creative geniuses of American music. As a documentary filmmaker, Hannah was understandably fascinated by her grand-aunt’s story so, as she herself admits, it was probably inevitable that she would make “The Jazz Baroness,” her latest film.
Mind you, Pannonica could hardly be unsung. As the film points out, there are some 20 jazz compositions inspired by her, written by such greats as Monk and Horace Silver. But the center of the film, interlaced with a chronology of her busy life, is the relationship with Monk, as improbable a pairing as one could imagine. Rothschild has created a loving, but meandering portrait of the pair, occasionally repetitive and making rather too generous use of stock footage, but after the first 10 minutes or so, which focus on her decision to make the film and her tentative approach to her great-aunt, it begins to move fitfully, then forcefully through her protagonists’ parallel histories. And, of course, the music is splendid.
Evgenia Ginzburg was another Jewish woman caught up in the vortex of 20th-century events. The subject of “Within the Whirlwind,” by Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (best known here for her masterly “Antonia’s Line”), Ginzburg was a poet and professor of literature, a staunch Communist Party activist who ran afoul of Joseph Stalin during the dark years of the mid-to-late 1930s. She is gradually stripped of position, her party membership and, finally, her husband and children, then sent into the Gulag for a 10-year sentence at hard labor in Siberia.
Adapted by Nancy Larson from Ginzburg’s memoirs, “Whirlwind,” which is the closing night film of the festival, is a bleak and relentless film. Ginzburg is another in Gorris’ line of shatterproof women, battered by life and by patriarchy but propelled forward by a steely inner strength. As played by Emily Watson, she is slowly transformed from a self-assured dispenser of Stalinist orthodoxy into a wryly cynical survivor. She has a certain snarky quality that never deserts her, and it shields a vulnerable core. Gorris finds a suitably drab palette for the film, all gray mists and monochromatic murkiness, and a convulsive, jagged rhythm that is most effective in the pivotal scenes of Ginzburg’s sudden drop through the trapdoor of Soviet life and “justice.”
Compared to Ginzburg, Hana (Jana Plodkova), the self-absorbed Jewish movie star who is the heroine of “Protector,” by Czech filmmaker Marek Najbrt, is a spoiled brat. (OK, that’s not a very fair comparison; next to Ginzburg, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are whiners.) At the outset of Najbrt’s film, she is a rising young starlet, a musical comedy goddess-in-the-making whose career is derailed by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. Her husband Emil (a suitably harried Marek Daniel) suddenly becomes the family’s skyrocket; his willingness to cooperate with the occupiers turns him from a dogged producer of radio news programs into a wildly popular on-air personality. All he has to do to stay on top is keep his wife hidden and his opinions likewise. But when he has to rush to an important meeting at the radio station after spending the night with a female admirer, he grabs a bicycle and suddenly fears that he has been mistaken for one of the men who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Final Solution, that same morning. To be blunt, “Protector” only comes to life at that point in the film, more than halfway through its seemingly endless 98 minute-running time.
Finally, there is “Bar Mitzvah,” this year’s Yiddish-language restoration from the National Center for Jewish Film. The film, by Henry Lynn, is worth preserving as the only known talkie starring Boris Tomashefsky. Unfortunately, it is also a prime example of “shund,” that subgenre of Yiddish family melodrama, aptly characterized as “trash,” that involves more improbably coincidences, last-minute resurrections and tearful, unappreciated mothers than all 70-plus years of “The Guiding Light.” Tomashefsky’s charisma is undeniable, although he is a bit old for the role of a remarried widower with a 13-year-old son and a blonde gold-digger second wife. The restoration is excellent, but the film is pretty woeful.
The 19th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, runs through Jan. 28. Films will be shown at the Walter Reade Theatre, the Jewish Museum and the JCC in Manhattan. For information, go to www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.