Two of the world’s foremost filmmakers, Andrew Macdonald and Kevin Macdonald, attended the 23rd Jewish Film Festival of Berlin & Brandenburg on July 4 to pay tribute to their illustrious grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, at an event at the Filmmuseum Potsdam that underscored the complex and deep contributions of Jews to the movies and to Germany.
The festival took place from July 2-11 and featured a great variety of movies and events that celebrated Jewish cinema, past and present, from all over the world.
This fascinating and moving Pressburger tribute, which was sponsored by the iconic German film company UFA, was emblematic of the depth of this festival.
Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who is best known for the classic movies he made in collaboration with Michael Powell, among them such iconic British films as The Red Shoes (which inspired generations of little girls to dream of becoming ballerinas), The Tales of Hoffmann and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, was the subject of the 1995 documentary, The Making of Englishman, which was screened at the festival.
The film was directed by his grandson Kevin and produced by Andrew.
The Macdonald brothers have been hugely successful in the movie industry, with Kevin making the Oscar-winning documentary about the massacre at the Munich Olympics, One Day in September, as well as directing Forest Whitaker in a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance in The Last King of Scotland. Andrew Macdonald has produced such films as Trainspotting and its recent sequel, and is currently working on Annihilation, the new Alex Garland film, which stars Natalie Portman.
Their documentary details how their grandfather became a successful screenwriter in Berlin in the early Thirties. Targeted by the Nazis early on, he fled to Paris and was a success in the French film industry, before heading to Britain, where he intended to learn English before moving to Hollywood. But he fell in love with the country, becoming “more English than the English.”
Pressburger was “altogether an inspiration” to his aspiring filmmaker grandsons, and, not long after his death in 1988, the Macdonalds felt an urgent need to document his life. Kevin sought out and interviewed many of Pressburger’s colleagues and friends. Discussing Pressburger’s unique talent and his contribution to the partnership with Powell, Kevin said, “He was the beating human heart of the films, the emotion – that’s Pressburger.”
The Pressburger tribute included several of Pressburger’s best-known films, including Colonel Blimp and Emil and the Detectives, which are rarely shown on the big screen.
In addition to the Pressburger salute, there were movies from a dozen countries, including feature films, documentaries and shorts.
The festival opened with Radu Mihaileanu’s The History of Love, a movie adaptation of the Nicole Krauss novel, starring Gemma Arterton, Elliott Gould and Derek Jacobi in a multi-generational love story set in three continents, through the dislocations of the Holocaust.
Israeli feature films shown included Avi Nesher’s Past Life, which is set in Jerusalem, Berlin and Warsaw; and Rama Burshstein’s marriage comedy in the ultra-Orthodox world, The Wedding Plan. There were documentaries on a wide range of subjects, including The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfred Israel, about a largely forgotten Berlin businessman who arranged the kindertransports that saved thousands of Jewish children’s lives during World War II. Special programs on the nature of kashrut in Jewish life included Chen Shelach’s documentary Praise the Lard and the very funny short The Chop by Lewis Rose, about a kosher butcher who gets a job in a hallal meat shop.
The festival program was so impressive that it came as a surprise when I learned, while interviewing festival director Nicola Galliner and participating in a panel on Jewish film festivals at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung after a screening of The Chop, that the Commissioner for Culture and Media of the German government has stopped funding the festival.
“The festival is a celebration of Jewish life,” said Galliner. “We have films from all over the world about amazing people with amazing lives.”
She spoke about the documentary Mohamed and Anna – In Plain Sight, Taliya Finkel’s movie about an Egyptian Muslim doctor in Berlin who helped Jews during World War II and was honored at Yad Vashem as one of the righteous gentiles.
“It’s the story of an unbelievably brave man, and it’s a story that you won’t see told in other places.”
One of my fellow panelists, Professor Frank Stern of the University of Vienna and the director of the Jewish Film Club Vienna, said that in its 23-year-history, “The festival has proved its importance. Jewish film is at the very center of German culture.”
The ghosts of prewar Jewish Berlin hovered over the festival. In a recent article in support of the festival, to which Stern referred in the panel, he wrote: “More than 2,000 Jewish filmmakers were forced into exile or murdered after 1933. To this day, German film has not recovered from this annihilation of culture.”
Pressburger is just one of these absentees. Exhibits at the Filmmuseum Potsdam also referred to other Jewish refugees who went on to make their mark in Hollywood, notably Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and William Wyler.
Ruth Diskin, the former owner and managing director of an international film distribution company and the director of projects at the Jerusalem Foundation, said, “What’s missing in the [German] arts scene is Jews.”
Sergey Lagodinsky, head of the Department of European Union/ North America at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung, who moderated the panel, noted that in America, the audiences for Jewish film festivals are mostly Jewish while the Jewish Film Festival of Berlin and Brandenburg is attended by mostly non-Jews, and commented, rhetorically, “I wonder why that could be.”
Aviva Weintraub, the director of the New York Jewish Film Festival, pointed out that some German filmmakers, such as Felix Moeller, “have engaged in a deep way” with the questions raised by the Holocaust and its legacy, adding that she felt Jewish film festivals were the ideal place to examine this legacy of displacement and achievement, while also focusing on other aspects of the Jewish experience.
Perhaps the most hopeful note on the panel was sounded by Bettina Jarasch, a member of the German parliament from the Green Party, who said that she would continue to fight for the funding of the Jewish Film Festival of Berlin and Brandenburg, and would not allow it to be marginalized by those who fail to see its importance.
The audience at the panel applauded when Jarasch said this, and clapped again when Galliner added that the festival was “an opportunity to show Jews as vibrant and alive, not victims.”