Thursday, January 17, 2013

Life? Or Theater? and The Trial of Adolf Eichmann at the New York Jewish Film Festival

My first trip to this years New York Jewish Film Festival was a double feature of two Holocaust related films.

Life? Or Theater? (2011)
Director Frans Weisz returns to the life of Charlotte Salomon, about whom he made a feature film in 1980. This time out he goes the documentary route and the result is one of the more amazing looking films I've seen recently.

The film tells the life story of Charlotte and how she came to create the work of art/theater that the film takes it's title from. The work, which consists of hundreds of paintings that tell the story of her life and that of her family is a kind of painted graphic novel with stage directions, of a sort. Its a brutally honest look at her life. It was created obsessively by Charlotte when she was hiding out from the Nazi's in the south of France.

The life of Charlotte was dramatized by Weisz in 1980. Its a biographical fiction film that more or less tells the story of Charlotte's life from her growing up in Berlin, to her time in France and her death in Auschwitz. The documentary does something similar but it constantly refernces the art work, the text of the "play" and interviews with people who knew Charlotte. All of the elements are blended by  Weisz with documentary, his earlier film, art, photos, TV footage, and lord knows what else in to a hypnotic mix that puts us into the art, into Charlotte's life and into the locations. It's a brilliant melding of old and new, now and then that creates a stunning experience.

And there is one thing Weisz has that no other document of the artist's life has ever had, namely a certain letter that was held back.

When Weisz was working on that film he was shown part of Life? or Theater? that no one other than Charlotte's step-mother had seen before, a letter that had been written to Charlotte's lover. Weisz had been told to understand Charlotte he needed to read it but he couldn't use the information. In doing the documentary he was under no such restriction and it's contents are revealed for the first time. Its a letter that colors the artist and her experiences very differently than what many thought the colors should be. (I should also say that Weisz's transcription of the letter is the only record of it since it's since what was to be put in a safe place has now gone missing)

I really liked the film a great deal but found that the film has two flaws, one correctable and one not that kept me from going completely over the moon about the film.

The first problem is that there is a point after Charlotte has fled to France that things become confused. Suddenly there are too many names. We get awash in who is who and where is where. I wish Weisz had taken a bit more time and shown us some more of the 60 hours of material to make things clearer.

The other flaw is Charlotte herself. A self contained woman who rarely smiled, who had a couple of love affairs but mostly painted and drew as a means of expressing herself, she is ultimately a cypher. As several people said until you got to know her she didn't open up. She was also moody and completely focused on her painting. It's something that does not make for a warm and fuzzy heroine. Don't get me wrong, I like her and I completely understand her, but she is really hard to warm to.

Reservations aside, I really like this film a great deal and I look forward to seeing it again a couple more times because it's incredibly rich in material.

I should mention that after the film the director did a Q&A. I'd like to say more but in the 20 or 25 minutes allotted for the talk he spoke about a wide variety of subjects related to the film and it's subject, but was so unfocused none of the questions were answered. I debated trying to contact him about doing an interview but I didn't since I wasn't sure I could come up with a way to keep him on point.

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann (2011)
The packed to the rafters screening of The Trial of Adolf Eichmann was extremely disappointing for me.

Its an unfocused bullet point filled look at the trial (or bits of it) and to some small degree Eichmann himself...and I do mean small degree.

While the film puts the trial in a historical context anything beyond that is lost. Yes it has many moving moments as the victims recount their suffering, but at the same time there is no context or background for anything or anyone. They show things that were said at the trial but they aren't connected to anything other than the trial. Worse so much about the trial and the investigators is left out that I felt I would have been better with a Wikipedia entry. This film desperately needs another hour and a half to two hours to put it all into context and fill in the voluminous holes.

Frankly if you don't know anything about Eichmann or the events of the trial or the Holocaust you aren't going to learn much here. Yea you'll be moved, but you won't be informed. Do yourself a favor and see any of the other better Holocaust documentaries/films that we've reviewed instead.

Clearly the filmmakers were too close to their subject to make a film for a mass audience.

The film is a ultimately a failure as anything other than the most basic highlight reel.

(Check back for further reports from this years Film Festival.)

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