Exodus to Shanghai is a film that claims to tell the story of Ho Feng-Shan, Chinese consul for Vienna, a rescuer of Jews in prewar Austria. While indeed based on true events, it may be the first Holocaust film that heavily features martial-arts-action scenes. The cast includes German actors, as well as Romanians, some Asians, and two young blond models. It was completed in Israel and sponsored by the Fashion TV channel. Sounds delusional? Not in the eyes of the filmmakers.
The production of Exodus to Shanghai was initiated by the founder and sole owner of Fashion TV, Michel Adam, a 67-year-old Jewish businessman. Born in Warsaw as Michel Adam Lisowski, his life took him from his homeland Poland to Vienna, where his family relocated in the 1950s. From there, he went to Princeton University as a math student. He then moved to Thailand, where he started his textile business. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Paris, where he opened some nightlife spots and founded Fashion TV, which is basically an endless catwalk running 24/7 on television, with some trendy parties here and there. Adam also has strong ties with Israel, where he was detained in 2005 after he was accused by a model of sexually harassing her.
The idea to make the movie was sparked in Adam’s mind in June 2014 while having a Shabbat dinner in Shanghai with the local rabbi, who told his honorable guest about the “Chinese Schindler” who helped Viennese Jews escape Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930s by secretly stamping thousands of immigration visas. “As I live in Vienna I went after the story, and I found out that the office of Dr. Ho was 100 meters away from the Fashion TV Office,” Adam told me in an interview. “The characters and incidents are based on many stories told by my family and by real-life people of Jewish heritage, who I met on my multiple journeys from Vienna and Israel to China. I got to live out my interpretation of this story.”
Adam said that other than world history, it was his own family history that pushed him into finding the funds for the not-so-low-budget production. “The main inspiration for the film is the life story of my mother,” he said. “She and her family left Europe for Palestine, while her sister and her husband went to China through Russia. She was 17 years old in 1939 when the war started and she pursued her path to survival. Our generation does not have to go through such challenges, but I always ask myself this question: What choice would I have made, if I would have ended up in a similar situation? Would I have been able to do something better?”
Is Exodus to Shanghai something better? It depends whether you are a Steven Spielberg or Jackie Chan kind of guy.
The film, directed by Anthony Hickox, is set in 1938 Vienna, which is ruled by local Hitler sympathizer Hermann Deutsch (played by German actor Markus Von Lingen), the movie’s villain, a local goon turned Nazi commissar. Deutsch always felt underprivileged near the rich and well-educated Morgenstern family, and he coveted their art collection and beautiful daughter Fannia (played by Israeli model Yaara Benbenishty). Now, with a swastika on his arm and in his heart, he can use his executive power in order to exploit, blackmail, and torment his Jewish neighbors.
While her parents find it hard to leave it all behind, Fannia, her sister Rivka (Israeli model and singer Jahni Raz), and brother Moshe (Srulik Pniel) decide to run away. But where to? This is where Dr. Ho comes into the picture—he grants them visas to China, while his nephew Bruce makes sure they will make it through the violent attack of Hermann and his gang. Bruce, as you can imagine, is a Bruce Lee-like character (played by Vietnamese-French model Alexandre Nguyen) who kicks Nazi asses. Between one fight and another, he also takes the time to exchange kisses and some fists with Fannia, who soon becomes a well-trained lethal kung fu fighter herself. She will have her share of Jewish vengeance—think Kill Bill meets Inglourious Basterds.
As in Inglourious Basterds, Exodus to Shanghai also feeds off the theme of Jewish vengeance. Whether it’s Fannia with her fists or her aristocratic parents with their machine guns, the sight of Nazi troops being massacred by Jews gives the movie a nice share of the Jewsploitation market—not really a kosher one, but enjoyable for some. “We saw during the screening a lot of people who enjoyed seeing the Nazis beaten. At the end, the main star Yaara, a violinst, shoots a key Gestapo guy and provided proof that she can protect herself,” Adam said. “We wanted to show a stronger side of the Jews and show that they fought back against the Nazis. That the Nazis were power-loving, drug-hungry evil men and that the people who believed in justice fought back.”
But with all due respect to his Jewish heritage and pride, Adam is a seasoned businessman who knows that the real audience and market for this movie—if any—is based in China. In today’s film economy, Western producers, even the big Hollywood ones, are looking east to find some financial relief for their flopping movies. While Adam won’t admit that, it is pretty clear that this is the main reasoning behind inserting wild martial-arts scenes into a Holocaust movie. “Before the production of Exodus to Shanghai, Dr. Ho was fairly unknown among those that did the right thing,” Adam said. “We were able to present his story and show how kind and heroic he was to those in need. We believe that this topic should never be forgotten, and thank the Chinese people,” he added.
In real life, to the extent that it matters, Dr. Ho was a master of bureaucracy, not of martial arts. This is his Chinese-keit in the view of the filmmakers. “Martial arts have been associated with the Chinese for thousands of years. We wanted to bring the story closer to the Chinese and put them in a good light, show cultural customs such as martial arts, disguises, etc., which are effective against villains such as Hitler,” Adam explained. “Additionally we didn’t want the movie to be like the rest of WWII—sad and traumatic. Instead, through the use of action, we were able to portray that defiance can lead to happiness, survival, love, marriage. Martial arts protected the Jews in the past and today.”
Jahni Raz, the 21-year-old Australian-born Israeli singer and model who was cast for the production by her agent, who has close ties with Adam, felt privileged to be part of this inventive retelling of history, she said. As young Rivka, she gets to perform as a vocalist and give her best Marlene Dietrich impersonation while singing “Lili Marleen.” She also contributed to the movie’s soundtrack. “When I was offered to play a singer in the time of the Holocaust, I was really moved by the idea. It was an opportunity to combine singing and acting,” Raz noted. Of course, she also gets to hit people, as her fragile naïve character becomes a Nazi killer in the final scenes. “I believe that the combination of the genres in the film expresses the director’s creativity,” Raz said. “He used it to tell an important story in a way that the younger generation can relate to. The movie deals with a tragic time, while demonstrating a feeling of strength, will to fight, and even win.”
‘We didn’t want Exodus to Shanghai to be like the rest of WWII—sad and traumatic.’
It is hard to watch Exodus to Shanghai and not think about the Holocaust survivors, and the way they would react to the way their suffering is being exploited as an action flick. For his part, Adam sticks to his message of defiance: “Hopefully this movie shows the fight against evil and the hope that many felt during that time,” he explained. “We will always be thankful to those who fought and the Chinese for helping the Jews make their exodus. Mutual respect and sympathy held by the Chinese and the Jews that contributed to the preservation of human dignity and world progress in general. Our intention was not to hurt the memory but to show that there is a way out for some. Holocaust survivors are in the film, showing that if a situation is difficult and you escape, make an exodus, you survive.”
After wrapping the shoot in Romania, Adam and his crew had their exodus to Israel, where a local visual-effects team took over. Although it has many Israeli actors and crew members, Exodus to Shanghai was never considered as an Israeli production and never had a theatrical release in the Holy Land (or anywhere else in the world for that matter: it is available for download). “As we wanted to show typical Jewish faces and actors, we went to Israel for Jewish roles,” Adam said. “At the same time, we discovered that postproduction and music scoring [in Israel] were at an excellent level and reasonably priced, which gave us the confidence to develop these resources for future projects.”
Now that Exodus to Shanghai is out, Adam is ready for his next planned productions: Falconman, which he describes as “a new superhero who fights corruption based in the world of megasports such as soccer, Grand Prix, etc.,” and a another Holocaust movie, The Eichmann Conspiracy, about “how the Nazis manipulated Germans to be violent anti-Semites.” It is a rare universe in which Falconman and Eichmann can co-exist on the same plane of meaning. In the work of Michel Adam, that universe has found life.
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Amir Bogen is a film journalist.