Improbable Jewish-German Film Festival publishes book celebrating 25 years

Maoz opens up about how this film was inspired by the hour in which he thought (incorrectly) that his daughter had been aboard a bus that was blown up by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

Editor Galliner's book celebrates 25 years of Jewish film (photo credit: NEOFELIS VERLAG PUBLISHING)
Editor Galliner's book celebrates 25 years of Jewish film
(photo credit: NEOFELIS VERLAG PUBLISHING)
Although Jewish film festivals are thriving around the world, running a Jewish film festival in Germany – where the Jewish community is tiny for obvious reasons – is a challenge, but it’s one that the Jewish Film Festival of Berlin and Brandenburg has been meeting for 25 years. Now the festival has published a book of essays on Jewish film to celebrate this anniversary, Celebration! 25 Years Jewish Film Festival Berlin and Brandenburg.
The book was launched at the most recent annual film festival. It features essays, all of which are in German and English by filmmakers and film critics from all over the world (including myself), about that elusive question that is both so simple and so complex: What makes a film Jewish?
The questions and topics addressed in the lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed book are as varied as the films that the authors describe.
The writers who contributed to the book come from around the world, including Germany, the US, Israel and Vienna.
Nicola Galliner, the founder and director of the festival, said in an interview that she commissioned the book to explore and celebrate the very nature of Jewish film.
“Everybody has a different opinion about what makes a film Jewish,” she said. “That’s what makes it exciting.”
Her festival’s audience is only about 25% Jewish, she said. “That’s unusual because at virtually every other Jewish film festival in the world, the audience is predominantly Jewish.”
The Jewish part of the festival audience is comprised partly of Israelis currently living in Germany and Russian Jews whose families moved to the country a few decades ago, she said, and partly of Holocaust survivors and their descendants who chose to stay in Germany after the war.
Part of the role of this festival is to “show people who don’t really know who Jews are an idea of what Jews are actually like; to destroy the stereotypes.” Galliner cited a recent German survey that showed that the vast majority of those polled thought that Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s premiere shopping street, is 80%-90% Jewish-owned, when Jewish ownership is closer to 10%.
At the launch of the book, she showed Benjamin Till’s short British film, 100 Faces, in which 100 British Jews, one born in every year between 1917 and 2018, talk – and sometimes sing – about what being Jewish means to them, a film that captured the spirit of the book perfectly.
“There is definitely a fascination with Jews and Jewish identity among our audience, and I hope the book will help answer some of these questions,” she said.
Prof. Frank Stern, a scholar in cultural studies and the head of the Jewish Film Club of Vienna, examines this issue from many perspectives in his article “What Is Jewish Cinema, and What Do Jewish Film Festivals Accomplish?” and writes that “Film cannot change reality, but Jewish film can affect people’s thinking and feeling and their attitudes toward the Jewish population in Germany and toward Israel.”
Other articles look at specific movies that hold a key place in Jewish film history, some of which have been widely celebrated as classics, others of which are lesser known.
Aviva Weintraub, associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York and the director of the New York Jewish Film Festival, wrote an appreciation of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, a 1975 film about the troubled marriage of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York. It stars Carol Kane (Taxi) and was based on a novella by Abraham Cahan. Perhaps most important, it featured dialogue almost entirely in Yiddish. Although it was difficult for Silver to get the film financed, Weintraub details how it is still widely shown in festivals today.
A far more controversial film, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, is the focus of a conversation between Maoz and Thomas Abeltshauser, a Berlin-based film critic, titled, “The Dance with Destiny.” Maoz opens up about how this film was inspired by the hour in which he thought (incorrectly) that his daughter had been aboard a bus that was blown up by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.
Avner Shavit, who writes on film for the Walla website, looks into the recent development of ultra-Orthodox cinema, movies about this community by its members, and how they have and have not influenced the religious community and secular Israeli society.
There are also appreciations of the work of important figures in the Jewish film landscape. These include Gershon Klein, a German actor and movie theater owner, for whom the prizes of the Jewish Film Festival of Berlin and Brandenburg are named, who is the subject of an essay by Katharina Schmidt-Hirschfelder.
One highlight of the book is an essay by J. Hoberman, who for many years was the main critic for The Village Voice in New York and who is one of the foremost experts on Yiddish film.
Hoberman traces the history of Yiddish cinema, all the way back to Europe before World War I: “In the years before World War I, a new sort of performer joined the itinerant organ-grinders and folksingers, who crisscrossed the Russian empire, traveling from town to town.... These were practitioners of kino-deklamatsye (film recitation); they projected movies, mainly travelogues and brief dramas, that spoke, sang and serenaded thanks to accompaniment of a gramophone record or an actor, concealed behind a curtain.”
A.M. Smolensky, he writes, had a troupe that was the first to address the huge audience in the Pale of Settlement – areas where Jews were allowed to live. From this prehistory, Yiddish cinema flowered into the cultural treasure that was wildly popular among Jewish audiences in both Europe and the US and still exists, albeit in a very different way, today.
There is much more in the book, which examines virtually every aspect of anything that could be considered Jewish film. But given that the winners of the 2019 JFBB were Alamork Davidian’s Fig Tree, the semiautobiographical story of a Jewish Ethiopian girl trying to flee her war-torn homeland in the late ’80s in the feature-film category, and Yolande Zauberman’s M, the story of an ultra-Orthodox prodigy who was both celebrated and abused, in the documentary section, it seems that there are already more chapters that need to be written in the festival’s next book.

352 pages; €24
Editor Nicola Galliner