Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

Dough and Opening night at the SF Jewish film festival

I attended opening night of the SF Jewish Film Festival at the Castro last night. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable evening.

Although it did start with the inevitable reserved seating problem. The whole front half of the theater was cordoned off for VIPs. Luckily, I convinced a volunteer usher that as press, I counted as a VIP, so I was able to sit in my preferred 3rd row center seat. Not that I was stealing that seat from a worthier person. For most of the film, I was the only person in the front three rows.

The show started soon after the official 6:15 starting time with a series of past Jewish Film Festival trailers. The last trailer, of course, was this year’s, and its’ one of the best.

The talking started at 6:23. SFJFF officers discussed the history of the Festival, the organization’s new name–the Jewish Film Institute–and their video-on-demand service. We were told that people under 35 can buy a festival pass for $35 (it doesn’t cover the big nights). We heard about other films coming up. And the director of this year’s film, John Goldschimdt, was introduced and talked briefly.

The movie started at 6:46. Not bad.

And the film itself? Not bad.

B+ Dough

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

Dough will play three more times at the festival:

This British film may get an American theatrical release, although as near as I can tell, it has not yet been picked up my a distributor.

After the film, director Goldschimdt and star Holder came on stage for a Q&A. It happened to be Holder’s 21st birthday, and he was presented with a cake.

Some highlights:

  • How did you (Holder) get involved? “I got called in to come in, and I did and audition with Jonathan Pryce. I’d done a bit of TV work. This is my big break.”
  • On playing a character from Darfur (out of character, Holder speaks with a London accent): It came to me just speaking to people in that circle.
  • Goldschimdt: “We shot 60 percent of the film in Budapest. It was a very good experience.”
  • On casting Holder: “When you look at a video, you can see who the camera likes best.” He brought Pryce into the auditions to make sure they had chemistry together.
  • Holder: “It was the best 10 or 11 weeks of my life.”

After the show, I went to the opening night party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The current exhibit on Any Winehouse was open for us. There was plenty of good food, but alas, no marijuana-laced challah.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Oddly, and I swear that this is only a coincidence, three of them are French.

Here’s what I thought of them, from best to worst.

A- My Shortest Love Affair

Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 29, 6:30
  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 6:15
  • California (Berkeley), Monday, August 3, 6:15
  • Rafael, Saturday, August 8, 8:30

The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films

Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their own interviews carry the movie.

  • Castro, Saturday, July 25, 6:50
  • CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, July 27, 6:30
  • California (Berkeley), Sunday, August 2, 6:30
  • Rafael, Sunday, August 9, 4:20

A La Vie (To Life)

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story really concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.

C The Law

A great cause doesn’t always create a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in rarely.

So why does this film belong in a Jewish film festival? Veil is a Holocaust survivor (she’s still alive). As the controversy over abortion grows in the film, some of the “pro-life” activists turn to anti-Semitism to attack her. But like all the other bits of human interest in this film, this gets buried under all of the political deals.

C- Mr. Kaplan

In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.

  • CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, July 30, 8:35
  • Castro, Sunday, August 2, 5:35
  • Rafael, Friday, August 7, 6:20

SF Jewish Film Festival: 35th edition

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which claims to be “the first and largest festival of its kind,” turns 35 this summer. The 17-day collection of screenings and other events will take place all around the Bay Area.

Whether it really is the first or largest, it is certainly my favorite of what I call ethnic film festivals–those that concentrate on a certain type of person. But my reason is totally subjective: I’m Jewish, so this festival concentrates on people like me.

Nevertheless, I missed Tuesday’s press conference. I had a good excuse. I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail–or at least a very tiny bit of it.

The festival runs from July 23 through August 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.

As near as I can tell, I have not yet seen anything screening in this year’s festival. But here are a few films and events that sound promising.

  • Dough: The opening-night dramedy followed the growing professional relationship between an aging kosher baker and his young Muslim assistant. When the assistant accidentally spills pot into the challah dough…well, I haven’t seen the movie and can’t go beyond that.
  • The Armor of Light: This documentary follows Rob Schenck, an ethnically Jewish evangelical minister and anti-abortion activist who begins to feel a certain contradiction between being pro-gun and pro-life.
  • Freedom of Expression Award: Lee Grant & Tell Me a Riddle: This year’s award goes to actress Lee Grant, who was blacklisted in the 1950s for refusing the cooperate with the anti-Communist witch hunt. Grant directed Tell Me a Riddle, which was screened at the very first San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
  • A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did: Every year, I say I want a Holocaust-free Jewish Film Festival. And yet, every year, there’s at least one worthwhile film about the Shoah. This British documentary, about the sons of two Nazi executions, just might be it this year.

I’ll try to view some of these films before the festival, and will let you know what I think about them.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst.

Curiously, the two best are also the least Jewish. I guess they were so good they had to be added anyway.

A Swim Little Fish Swim
Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his frustrated wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.


So what makes this a Jewish film? In one extended sequence, Leeward and his family go to his parent’s home for Shabbat.

A- Comedy Warriors
Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.


And what makes this one a Jewish film? One of the five is a religious Jew. Also, although this is never discussed in the film, standup comedy is essentially a Jewish art honed in the Catskills. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have to answer that question for the remaining three films.

B God’s Slave
A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.


C+ Anywhere Else
A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as straight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside.  Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.


C The Village of Peace
On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.


Note: I altered this article on July 23, corrected the time that The Village of Peace will play at the Castro on August 1.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

So far, I’ve screened three films and one TV episode that will play this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them:

B+ Afternoon Delight
The plot sounds like broad, comic farce: A young Jewish mother and housewife invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute to move into her home and become her imageyoung son’s nanny. When Afternoon Delight tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. But writer/director Jill Soloway mostly plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The result is mostly thoughtful, entertaining, grounded in reality, and sexy.

Afternoon Delight plays only once at the festival, as the Berkeley Big Night presentation. That will be at the California on Saturday, August 3, at 6:30. It will open for a regular theatrical release on August 30.

B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali
A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22, with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of imagethe world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale.

Just one problem: There’s absolutely nothing Jewish about this film except the director’s last name. The Festival’s explanation for why it’s here, "certain films when placed in a Jewish context inspire truly Jewish conversation," doesn’t convince me.

Despite that problem, The Trials of Muhammad Ali will screen four times: At the Castro on Sunday, July 28, at 7:15; the New Parkway on Friday, August 2, at 7:00; the Rafael on Saturday, August 10, at 6:00, and at the Grand Lake on Sunday, August 11, at 4:35.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will
I’ve only seen one episode of this Canadian docu-comedy series–I believe the festival will screen three. Not to be confused with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi original, this imageshow follows Hotz as he attempts in each episode to do something decent and good. In the one I saw, he tried to get his 75-year-old mother–a widow for two decades–to rekindle her sex life. A couple of scenes were howlingly funny–especially the one where Annie Sprinkle shows her a variety of vibrators–and most of it at least generated a smile. Since I’ve only seen a third of what will be presented, I’m not giving this show a grade.

Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will will only screen once at the festival, at the JCCSF, on Saturday, August 3, at 8:45.

C+ The Zigzag Kid
This year’s festival opens not with a bang, but with a modestly entertaining, family-friendly fizzle. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-imagedead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous and mildly charming, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles.

The Zigzag Kid opens this year’s Festival at the Castro, Thursday, July 25, at 6:30. It also plays at the Cinearts at Palo Alto Square on Sunday, August 4 at 1:50, Berkeley’s California Theatre on Tuesday, August 6, at 6:15, and the Rafael on Monday, August 12, at 6:10.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival officially announced its 33rd run this morning. Probably the largest of all the "identity film festivals" in the area, it will play five venues around the Bay Area from July 25 through August 12.

This year’s theme, "Life through a Jew(ish) lens," raises two questions: What does that mean and how do you pronounce parentheses in Jew(ish)? It means that the festival is inclusive–meant to attract all kinds of Jews, including those whom Executive Director Lexi Leban described as "guilty by association." And Jew(ish) is pronounced "Jew (pause) ish."

As usual, the festival will start at the Castro, and remain there for eight days. Then the festival will hop the Bay for a week in Berkeley. Shorter runs in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael will round it out.

For the third time in its history, the Festival is moving its Berkeley location, and this time, for the better. Rather than the Roda Theater, which is better designed for live performance than cinema, it will play the California’s large, downstairs auditorium–probably the best commercial movie house in Berkeley and certainly the largest. Other East Bay venues are the Piedmont, the New Parkway, and the Grand Lake.

Some highlights, categories (this festival loves to put films into categories), and promising titles:

  • The San Francisco Centerpiece film, The Attack, looks promising. The protagonist, a Palestinian-Israeli surgeon, has his comfortable life turned upside-down when his missing wife is accused of terrorism.
  • The JewTube category spotlights Israeli TV. It will include the pilot for the successful series Prisoners of War, followed by a discussion of how it was adopted into the American series Homeland. Also in this series–some episodes from Arab Labor: Season 4 (you can read what I thought of seasons 1, 2, and 3).
  • And speaking of television, we’ll also get some episodes of the Canadian comedy series Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will, not to be mistaken for Leni Riefenstahl’s original.
  • Before the Revolution looks at Iranian Jews who had to escape that country in 1979. It will screen with a short about one Iranian Jew’s fascination with Jerry Lewis.
  • Among the historical figures whose lives will be examined in narratives and documentaries, you’ll find works on Art Spiegelman, Hannah Arendt, Muhammad Ali, and Wilhelm Reich

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