There’s a light in August, so to speak, with this month’s film releases. In a series of movies that cut across borders, genres and even budget sizes, there has been a renewed and positive presence of Jewish themes and references. These films are all fact-based or non-fiction works, but they range from a portrait of an aging rock star to a frequently uproarious tale of undercover police work, and the Jewish presence is often unlikely.
For example, “Nico 1988,” currently playing at the reopened and handsomely renovated Film Forum, recounts the last few years of the Warhol-backed ex-model-turned-singer-songwriter as she makes a final futile attempt to revive her sagging musical career. The film is full of surprises. Trine Dyrholm is impressive in the title role as a heroin addict trying hard just to maintain, and who wants to be remembered for something other than her brief moment of stardom reluctantly fronting the Velvet Underground. It’s a wry, spiky, often poignant performance (and she sings better than the real Nico). Writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli makes clever use of excerpts from Jonas Mekas’ diary films from the ’60s, catching the zeitgeist without embalming it, and the result is unexpectedly moving and funny.
Early in the film, we are introduced to Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), her new manager and ardent fan. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” she asks. He confirms her guess and she replies earnestly, “It doesn’t make you uncomfortable to be working with a German, does it?” She tells him that her father was in the Resistance and helped some Jews during the war. Towards the end of the film, when she and Richard have long since bonded over musical disasters, automotive breakdowns, drug induced blow-ups and endless road trips in a battered camper van, the two share an intimate, boozy dinner in which Nico shamefacedly confesses that her father was just another private in the Wehrmacht, killed somewhere on the Eastern Front.
It’s a moment that has the ring of sweet, addled caring shared by two rather beaten-down souls. And as Nico prepares for a vacation in Ibiza as the film’s denouement approaches, she reveals to Richard that she is marrying her Orthodox landlord from Manchester, a florist who doesn’t care about Warhol or Lou Reed and who wants her to work in his flower shop.
Spike Lee has featured Jewish-American characters before in his films. They are usually depicted as greedy manipulators like the jazz club owner in “Mo’ Better Blues,” or weaklings with faulty moral compasses like Christopher Plummer in “Inside Man.” But in his latest film, “BlacKKKlansman,” John David Washington and Adam Driver play a black-Jewish team of undercover cops working in early-1970s Colorado Springs to expose a nascent but dangerous chapter of the Klan. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in the CSPD, the film is smart, often quite funny, and it catches the bantering tone of the all-male world of police work in the period, neither idealizing nor demonizing the cops. There are a few particularly heartfelt exchanges between Washington and Driver touching on the complexities of personal identity in a pluralist society — are they African-American, Jewish-American, policemen or some hybrid? The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Lee doesn’t have a clear-cut answer, but for all its humor, the film is neither glib nor unfeeling. Indeed, “BlacKKKlansman” is a vivid reminder that Lee is at his best when he marries his rhetorical flights to a strong genre spine and treats even his heavies with a degree of humanity.
The same might be said for Emmanuel Finkiel, the gifted Jewish-French writer-director of “Memoir of War,” which opens Aug. 17 at Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. One of the strengths of Finkiel’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ fictionalized recollection of the Nazi occupation is his depiction of the sinister, yet pathetic, Rabier, a French secret policeman who becomes obsessed with Marguerite. Not as surprising, there are very few Jews actually present in the film, but their absence hangs over everything like a storm cloud.
And then there’s “Cielo,” which opens Aug. 15 at Film Forum, a hauntingly visionary non-fiction film about the night sky over the Atacama Desert in Chile. Mostly uninhabited and the most arid place on Earth, this mountainous and forbidding location offers the largest, clearest uninterrupted view of the sky to be had on the planet; Canadian filmmaker Alison McAlpine revels in it, alternating long takes of the stars at night with interviews with the scattered individuals who live and work there.
You would assume that this is a film with no Jewish references, right? During one of her chats with astronomers working in the Atacama, she notes that her interview subject discovered a new star system. He modestly notes that a Swiss team made the same discovery at roughly the same time. They named it WASP 40. He adds with a grin, “We prefer to call it ‘the Golem.’”
George Robinson’s column appears every other month.