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The Riches of Jewish Film in Venice

At the 75th festival—with new works by the Coen brothers, Julian Schnabel, Errol Morris, Orson Welles, and ‘Son of Saul’ director László Nemes, and period dramas starring Rachel Weisz and Jeff Goldblum, as well as Israeli films—‘the horror of the world lies behind infinitely pretty things’

A.J. Goldmann
September 21, 2018
© Lorenzo Hagerman
Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum in a still from Rick Alverson's 'The Mountain' (2018).© Lorenzo Hagerman
© Lorenzo Hagerman
Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum in a still from Rick Alverson's 'The Mountain' (2018).© Lorenzo Hagerman

It seemed oddly appropriate that the very first film to screen at the 75th Venice Film Festival late last month was a restored print of the silent Weimar classic Der Golem—wie er in die Welt kam from 1920.

What a way to inaugurate this anniversary lineup of the world’s oldest film festival, with the Jewish Frankenstein monster wreaking havoc on an expressionist rendering of medieval Prague. Like the Maharal’s mythical creature, the Venice Film Festival, held for the first time on Lido in 1932, has acquired powers far beyond those ever imagined by its makers.

When the Esposizione d’arte cinematografica, as the festival was then called, was unveiled as a cultural experiment during the Fascists’ second year running the Venice Biennale, a contemporary newspaper report marveled at how “the world’s greatest exhibition of contemporary art has received and consecrated among its arts even cinematography.”

“Mass culture met elite culture on the terrace of the Excelsior Hotel, and the Fascist government and party had arranged the match,” is how historian Maria Stone describes that first installment. The festival awarded the Coppa Mussolini, the precursor to today’s Golden Lion, between 1934 and 1942 when the festival was often a showcase for Fascist and Nazi propaganda, including Veit Harlan’s infamous Jud Süß (1940), which was enthusiastically reviewed by a young film critic named Michelangelo Antonioni. The future director praised the film’s “cinematic refinement” and wrote rather loftily: “We have no hesitation in saying that if this is propaganda, then we welcome propaganda.” (Harlan would go on to take the top prize in the last wartime Mostra del Cinema, held in 1942, for his Frederick the Great biopic Der größe König.)

But while the Mostra del Cinema, as it is called in Italian, has had its ups and downs over the past eight decades, today the mother of all festivals is arguably the world’s most important showcase for international cinema. This year’s edition featured a vigorous crop of new work from many of the world’s leading filmmakers, including many who were notably absent from the most recent Festival de Cannes.

In recent years, the festival has launched many of the best picture Oscar winners or frontrunners, including Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and La La Land, alongside the demanding and rigorous works of auteur cinema that the festival has been known for at least since Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon won the Golden Lion in 1951.

In movie-mad Italy, films were acknowledged as art much earlier than elsewhere, and the Mostra del Cinema has managed to strike a balance between cineaste seriousness and acknowledging cinema as a fundamentally popular entertainment. At this year’s edition, that equilibrium was achieved much more convincingly than at either Berlin or Cannes earlier this year, with an uncommonly high number of lavish productions that were both artistically accomplished and widely accessible.


The late July announcement of the Mostra’s lineup sent squeals of joy through the film-loving world. It seemed as if a significant portion of the world’s greatest directors (both present and past, but more on that later) had managed to finish a film this year. One of the most surprising features was the large number of intricately designed historical dramas that recreated, variously, early modern England, the Wild West, and Eastern Europe from the fin de siècle to the first decades of the Cold War.

The Coen brothers snagged the festival’s screenplay award for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film based on stories that the Coens have been writing and rewriting over the past 25 yeas. The directing duo’s third western after their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), the episodic film furthers the Coens’ project of re-mythologizing American history. (It was also one of several titles produced by Netflix, in addition to Alfonso Cuarón’s Golden Lion-winning Roma.)

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Scruggs, a warbling sharp shooter whose idiomatic eloquence brings to mind Sam Elliott’s memorable narrator in The Big Lebowski (1998). The subsequent tales feature James Franco as a bank robber with a knack for dangling at the end of a noose, à la Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Tom Waits as a gold digger tearing up unspoiled nature in search of elusive ore, and Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia) as a nervous young woman along the Oregon Trail. Given the Coens’ stature in the world of cinema, it was surprising that this was the first time that the directing duo were competing on Lido.

As enjoyable as Buster Scruggs was, my favorite competition title was László Nemes’ Sunset, a shattering portrait of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is now clear that the Hungarian director who singlehandedly reinvented the Holocaust film with 2015’s Son of Saul has developed a singular and subjective way to treat grand historical events. Sunset, Nemes’ second feature, shows that the clammy, claustrophobic style that made Saul so nightmarishly effective is integral to the director’s visual approach.

As an evocation of Mitteleuropa before World War I, Sunset is a far cry from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Hotel Budapest. The wide-eyed Juli Jakab (who also had a role in Son of Saul) plays Irisz Leiter, a young milliner who has come up from Trieste to Budapest to seek employment in the upscale hat shop her family once owned and which still bears her name. The year is 1913. People shudder when they hear her name as she trudges through the capital with almost superhuman determination to uncover the mystery of her family’s tragic fate. We learn precious little about the circumstances under which her parents lost the store (and possibly their lives, as well) in a fire. A menacing coachman tells Irisz about a brother she never knew she had, a violent man who seems to embody the dark, chaotic, and irrational forces that will plunge the continent into bloodshed and spell the end of the empire. Or maybe the man Irisz meets, the charismatic leader of a bloodthirsty rabble that plots the bloody overthrow of the nobility in an underground club called The Sphinx, isn’t her brother at all.

As in Son of Saul, we never are on firm footing, thanks largely to Mátyás Erdély’s probing camera, which rarely strays from Jakab’s face, a riddle of innocence and improbable courage, unlike that of Géza Röhrig, haunted and sunken in Son of Saul. Nemes has pointed to Chinatown as a key influence. As an examination of doubt, consciousness and evil, Sunset shares much with Roman Polanski’s epochal neo-noir, which is perhaps cinema’s finest example of subjective storytelling.

The washed-out colors of the 35 mm film (Sunset was one of the few works at the festival to screen from a film print) add a dreamy, nostalgia-suffused atmosphere to a story that culminates in brutality and menace right out of the psychologically and erotically charged narratives of Arthur Schnitzler or Frank Wedekind. It is tempting to see Sunset as a prequel of sorts to Saul; an examination of the suicide of altes Europa that laid the groundwork for Hitler’s rise.

Unlike Saul, which triumphed at Cannes before going on to win the foreign film Oscar, Sunset met with a mixed critical response on Lido. And while it walked away from the closing ceremony empty-handed, The International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) awarded it their top prize. At the very least, I would have been glad to see the International Jury, headed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, present the film with a special award for Sunset’s stunning chapeaux, which have a starring—and highly symbolic—role in the film. As one character puts it to Irisz: “The horror of the world lies behind these infinitely pretty things.”

The other foreign-film-Oscar-winning European director intent on digging into the traumas of the 20th century was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his soapy Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away), a thinly veiled biopic of the early life of German superstar painter Gerhard Richter. In the opening scene, a little boy tours the infamous Nazi “Degenerate Art” in Dresden with his aunt (never mind that the date should be 1933 rather than 1937, one of the many liberties that the director takes with the historical record). A Nazi museum guide played by the charmingly sinister Lars Eidinger explains the spiritual sickness that lies behind so-called modern art. The aunt draws the boy aside and whispers to him, “Don’t tell anyone, but I like it!”

That aesthetic judgment is the first hint that the boy’s aunt is not long for Hitler’s Germany. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she is taken away and killed in the Nazi euthanasia program, although her fate remains a secret from her nephew, who comes of age in East Germany making social realist murals before defecting and winding up in Düsseldorf, where he studies with a Joseph Beuys-like professor and finds his true artistic style painting blurred canvases based on photo snapshots, including ones of his aunt and his father-in-law, who, unbeknownst to the young painter, was the Nazi doctor who condemned her to death. Many of these improbable details are indeed drawn from Richter’s fascinating biography, but at three hours long, the film is a frequently kitschy schlep through WWII and postwar Germany. Enjoyable without being engrossing, it feels dutiful in the manner of most German historical films being made today: a formulaic narrative undistinguished by visual inventiveness that doesn’t seem to aspire to being much more than a history lesson.

A more serious attempt to grapple with the soul of an artist was Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, about Vincent Van Gogh. This was the American painter-turned-filmmaker’s first time back at Venice since 2010’s Miral, his widely panned melodrama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Twenty-two years after Schnabel’s wild directorial debut Basquiat, his At Eternity’s Gate is an earnest biopic grounded by Willem Dafoe’s soulful and anguished performance in the lead role. It is easy to ignore (or forget) that Dafoe is decades older than the Dutch artist was at the time of his death. If At Eternity’s Gate is a more serious and ambitious reckoning with artistic genius and madness than Basquiat, it lacks the brash, punk energy of that earlier film, and Schnabel subjects us to overwrought dialogues between Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaacs playing his least likable character since Llewyn Davis) about perception, technique and aesthetics.

Although Dafoe snagged the best actor award, my favorite male performance was Jeff Goldblum as a womanizing lobotomist with a drinking problem in Rick Alverson’s formally rigorous The Mountain, which arrived the first day of the festival and seemed to be mostly ignored. Up until now, Goldblum’s most radical late-career reinvention was his all-in rendition as a Holocaust-surviving comedian in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected (2008). A decade on, the nondescript midcentury suits hang from Goldblum’s lanky physique with a sort of comical grandeur that defines the affability of Wallace Fiennes, a doctor who travels the American heartland like a door-to-door salesman, offering his controversial procedure to any psychiatric hospital that will engage him.

I also cherished Rachel Weisz’s fierce performance as the Duchess of Marlborough in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ lush early 18th-century costume drama The Favourite. Olivia Colman may have walked off with the best actress trophy as the impetuous and melancholy Queen Anne, but Weisz’s duchess, whose privileged position at court as the monarch’s intimate—we’re talking very, very intimate—is threatened by the arrival of a ruthless newcomer (Emma Stone as a fallen noblewoman trying to regain her lost prestige), grounds this grand entertainment with her wit and ferocity. It’s a classic bitch-fest worthy of All About Eve or The Women, with the added enticements of outrageous wigs, palace interiors, English gardens, and lots of candlelight. It has long been clear that Kubrick is a major influence on the Greek director. If his two previous features, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer were haunted by The Shining, then The Favourite seems largely an homage to Barry Lyndon, down to anachronistic use of German Romantic chamber music (Schubert in Kubrick; Schumann here).


Venice is still the only major film festival where an Israeli production has taken top prize. In 2009, Samuel Maoz snagged the Golden Lion for his tank-bound war film Lebanon. Last year, Foxtrot, that director’s long-awaited follow-up, walked away with the Venice Film Festival’s Jury Prize, before sweeping the Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent to the Oscars.

This year there were no Israeli films in the running for the Golden Lion, although the Jewish state was amply represented in the other sections, with the blue and white flag fluttering proudly from the Palazzo del Cinema (flanked by the banners of Ireland and Japan). Given the complete absence of Israeli films at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, Israeli cinema’s strong showing in Venice was especially heartening.

Having said that, I’m still not sure what to make of Yaron Shani’s disturbing Stripped, which screened in Orizzoni, the festival’s second section. Shani is best known for Ajami (2009), an explosive melodrama set in Jaffa, which he co-directed with Palestinian director Scandar Copti.

Stripped is the first part of Shani’s projected “Love Trilogy,” which he filmed in Tel Aviv with a cast of largely nonprofessional actors who reportedly lived as their characters during the yearlong shoot. Like a bird of prey, the film keeps relentlessly circling its fragile protagonists: an acclaimed young author, Alice (Laliv Sivan), and Ziv (Bar Gottfried), a withdrawn teenager who lives next door. The two main strands of the story, which appear to be separate for most of the film, are Alice’s deepening suspicion that she has been drugged and raped, and Ziv’s efforts to win a coveted place in the Israeli army’s Outstanding Musician program.

The disjointed narrative technique is deliberately unsettling in a work that explores gender dynamics and macho culture in Israel. The climax is a lurid sex party featuring Eastern European strippers and prostitutes, organized by the high school seniors to celebrate a classmate who has just been released from a cancer ward. Here, as elsewhere, Shani blurs the genitals in the manner of TV news programs, although, like so much else in the film, I found his reasons for doing so troublingly vague.

It’s difficult to imagine where Shani will possibly take his characters in the next two installments, to be titled Chained and Reborn, although it seems pretty safe not to expect an Israeli version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Perhaps he hopes to achieve something similar to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog and Three Colors trilogy. On the basis of Stripped, however, Shani’s detached style lacks the pathos and humanity present in the Polish master’s haunting works.

Also screening in Orizzonti was Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi’s Tel Aviv on Fire, a ludicrously entertaining comedy about a Hebrew dialogue coach on a Palestinian soap opera. In order to appease the commander of the checkpoint he passes through daily on his way to the studio in Ramallah he bluffs his way to the writer’s room and sets about rewriting the show for an Israeli audience.

Kais Nashef, a lanky actor with a hangdog expression who is best known for Paradise Now (2005), snagged Orizzonti’s best-actor prize for his deadpan performance as Salam, the TV writer who reluctantly collaborates with Assi (Yaniv Biton), a pushy Israeli officer who won’t take no for an answer. Like the soap they end up writing, the film is a rare Palestinian-Jewish collaboration: Zoabi wrote the screenplay with American writer Dan Kleinman.

The film’s centerpiece is the luridly produced soap opera itself, which shares the film’s title, about a Palestinian female spy who falls in love with the Israeli general she is trying to ensnare during the Six-Day War. The soft-focus period recreation, with eye-popping colors and riotous overacting looks like a Middle Eastern telenovela directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

The highest-profile Israeli at Venice this year was Amos Gitai, a festival favorite, who came to present A Tramway in Jerusalem, a quirky snapshot of that city set entirely on the light rail and its stations in both East and West Jerusalem. The vignettes range from Haredim huddled together in study to an Israeli security guard racially profiling a Palestinian woman who holds a Dutch passport. In one of the wittiest segments, Hana Laszlo, who won best actress in Cannes for Gitai’s 2005 film Free Zone, plays an overbearing mother publicly chastising her underachieving adult son in colorful Yiddish.

The large cast also includes the stunning redhead Yuval Scharf, the star of Gitai’s one-take Ana Arabia, which competed here in 2011, as a pretty girl fending off unwanted attentions, from the above-mentioned security guard and a disheveled Catholic priest (or some crazy with a collar) reciting chapter and verse in Italian. Israeli singer Achinoam Nini also appears as herself.

Mathieu Amalric—one of today’s most interesting actors, equally at home in contemporary French cinema or playing a Bond villain—reads aloud to a little boy (the actor’s real-life son Elias) from a letter written by Gustave Flaubert during his 1850 visit to the Orient that he undertook with his close friend Maxime Du Camp: “Jerusalem has the effect of a fortified pile of corpses. There, old religions rot in silence. One walks over and sees only ruins. It is enormously sad.”

Toward the end of the film, the 52-year-old actor, whose mother is Jewish and whose maternal grandparents came from the same Polish village as Roman Polanski, makes hilarious small talk with a placid Israeli couple who react with bewildering hostility when Amalric’s character seems to express more interest in Israel’s weather than its army.

For all its quotidian aimlessness, Gitai’s film is not without a message, even if it’s one as general as pointing out how everything in Jerusalem, even public transportation, is political. In Venice, the feature film was prefaced by Gitai’s A Letter to a Friend in Gaza, which also screened at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, an overtly political short where Israeli and Palestinian actors earnestly recite texts about exile and return, including by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Israeli journalist Amira Hass.


Like Gitai, the American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is another frequent festival guest. His harrowing new film about Steve Bannon, American Dharma, which screened out of competition, was one of the most anticipated films of the festival, at least by the American media who flocked to the far-from-capacity screenings.

“Know Thy Enemy” might well be the tagline for this gripping conversation between Morris, the quintessential East Coast Jewish liberal filmmaker and this archconservative thinker. When he isn’t making his dire predictions of a revolution that will lead to a radical restructuring of America, Bannon chips in with his idiosyncratic analysis of classic films.

In Bannon’s quirky interpretation of Orson Welles’ Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight, Sir John Falstaff accepts his humiliation at the hands of the newly crowned Henry V. He is merely fulfilling his dharma, which Bannon defines at several times during the film as a “combination of fate, duty, and destiny.” Watching the rejection scene with Bannon’s commentary, it’s difficult not to think of his expulsion from the White House.

In one of the most caustic exchanges, Bannon challenges Morris about his support for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary. “How could you make Fog of War and Known Unknown and vote for Clinton?” Bannon almost shouts at the filmmaker. Morris’ answer is brutally honest and despairing. “I did it out of fear!” he practically cries out: fear that Clinton was the only hope against people like Trump and Bannon.

Morris’ film delivered the closest thing that this festival had to a scandal, thanks both to the irate journalists at the press conference who felt that the director had not challenged his subject enough and Variety’s unconfirmed sighting of Steve Bannon, who was not invited by the festival, incognito in the balcony during the red-carpet screening. (Bannon denied that he was in the cinema, saying that he had come to Venice to do media independently; during the screening itself, he claimed to be meeting with Giorgia Meloni, the head of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party.) Pretty much the only other time the festival courted controversy was when a minor Italian filmmaker, Luciano Silighini Garagnani, flashed a T-shirt proclaiming “Weinstein Is Innocent” on the red carpet for Luca Guadagnino’s poorly received remake of Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria.


Despite the wealth of robust new cinema on offer in Venice, the festival’s single most important film had to be Orson Welles’ never-before-seen The Other Side of the Wind, which Welles began filming in the early 1970s and worked on, off and on, until his death in 1985. Since then, the uncompleted film has been mired in artistic, financial, and legal difficulties, all of which finally lifted last year when Netflix stepped forward to fund the film’s completion.

Thirty-three years after Welles’ death, the film screened at Venice feels both like a time capsule and a transmission from some other dimension. With its frenzied camera work and editing, alongside its crass depiction of women, it feels both avant-garde and highly dated.

Welles had hoped that Wind would be his comeback picture after decades of exile in Europe. In this fabled “lost” film, that’s exactly what J.J. Hannaford (a grizzled John Huston in a cigar-chomping performance) wants to achieve when he screens his long-awaited new film, also titled The Other Side of the Wind, to a swarm of friends, foes, and many camera-toting hangers-on at his raucous 70th birthday party.

Both the party and the film have a fabulous and very Jewish guest list, including Peter Bogdanovich (playing a smarmy, arrogant Young Turk with the preposterous name Brooks Otterlake), Susan Strasberg (taking quite a beating as a Pauline Kael-esque critic), Paul Stewart (one of Welles’ Mercury Theater actors, and Charles Foster Kane’s servant Raymond in Citizen Kane) and Lilli Palmer (as the party’s Marlene Dietrich-like hostess). Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, and even Borscht-belt legend George Jessel appear as themselves.

In addition to his acting role, Bodganovich was also one of the executive producers. Along with editor Bob Murawski, he sifted through over 100 hours of footage, with only a few sequences finished by Welles himself, including the art-trash film within a film, which features a lurid, and long-notorious sex scene in a car.

The film’s jittery style and nonlinear nature inspired scores of walkouts during the press screening. It was certainly one of the least accessible, most stubbornly auteurist films of the festival. It is also one of the most unique, far-out, dizzyingly ambitious, and ferociously satirical films I have ever seen: a work that invites comparisons both to Welles’ ingenious late-career documentary F for Fake and Bob Fosse’s manic masterpiece All That Jazz. Whether the film in its current version is anything like what Welles’ envisioned is something I imagine film lovers will debate endlessly after Netflix releases it on Nov. 2. (Before then, Wind will screen at the Telluride and New York film festivals.)

Wind was originally announced this year for Cannes, before the French festival had an ugly falling-out with Netflix over theatrical screenings. Cannes’ loss was certainly Venice’s gain. It was difficult to imagine a better 75th anniversary present to this legendary film festival than this iconic filmmaker’s final testament.


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A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Munich. His articles on art and culture have appeared in, among other publications, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News Magazine, and The Forward.

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