November 7–19, 2018
Full program and schedule at Bostonjfilm.org
The Interpreter, dir. Martin Šulík, Massachusetts premiere
In this film, two older men go on a road trip to learn about their mutual but polar-opposite past. They are Slovak Holocaust survivor Ali Ungár (Jirí Menzel) and Georg Graubner (Peter Simonischek), son of the Austrian Nazi who murdered Ali’s family. Besides war atrocities, character barriers separate the men—Georg’s blasé, irresponsible lifestyle and Ali’s hatred for the enemy. But over the course of the trip’s painful discoveries, the men find unexpected openings for compassion, personal growth, and resolution. The film shows how hands-on education about human barbarity has the power to transform a person’s inherited attitudes. Two universals overarch the movie: the psychic pain of boys without fathers and the question Georg asks: Is it easier to be the son of a murderer or the son of a victim?
Chasing Portraits, documentary
Directed by Elizabeth Rynecki
Massachusetts premiere, The Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a conversation with the director
Tears accompany nearly every heartfelt moment in Elizabeth Rynecki’s documentary about her family, Chasing Portraits. She grew up in California, deeply affected by her father Alex Rynecki’s Holocaust experience and her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki’s murder by the Nazis, as well as Moshe’s legacy as a painter of Poland’s lost Jewish culture—scenes of working people, weddings, rabbis, and other community traditions. These paintings hung on the walls of her Bay Area home and her grandparents’ home in Northern California.
In 1939, Elizabeth’s father was three when his parents and grandmother (Moshe’s wife) obtained Catholic identities in order to live outside the Warsaw ghetto, which allowed them to survive the Holocaust. But Moshe chose to remain with his fellow Jews locked in the ghetto and died at the Majdanek concentration camp.
Out of Moshe’s oeuvre of some 800 paintings bundled and hidden for safety as the war approached, only 120 were recovered by Moshe’s wife after the war. Haunted by these paintings that surrounded her, and the family history embedded in them that her father was unable to talk about, Elizabeth grew up wanting to find out more about Moshe, his art, and the fate of his lost paintings.
When Elizabeth’s grandfather George Rynecki died, she read his typed memoir, which encouraged her to actively seek answers about her great-grandfather Moshe. Chasing Portraits follows Elizabeth’s quest in Poland, Israel, Canada, and the United States. She gives talks that soon spread the word about her mission to find Moshe’s lost art; she meets museum curators and private collectors; and she wrestles with the moral issue of rightful ownership of stolen art. With pain, she talks about her choices: whether to accept the situation as it is, with meaningful, personal, and valuable family property now in the hands of strangers and institutions, or suing for restitution. Her film involves us in the emotions inherent in the situation of lost family art (stolen art) that has resulted from war and mass murder. An Israeli lawyer advises her: Some of those people purchased the artwork having no idea about its provenance, so unless you have evidence, they bought the art in good faith.
We know, though, and the expert also knows, that in reality those local people, however rural or ignorant, knew about Jewish property and possessions being sold from hand to hand. The art wasn’t purchased or traded innocently; farmers, flea markets, collectors, and museums could easily see that the images focused on Jewish life that had just been annihilated.
Elizabeth’s journey involves this painful acceptance of loss and powerlessness to reclaim, but she also experiences moments of redemption when beautiful encounters occur, such as her visit to collector Edward Napiorkowski who willingly gives her his painting by Moshe. The museums, though, are not letting go of their treasures. Moshe’s work is steeped in Jewish heritage and history. In the end, Elizabeth focuses on the greatest legacy her great-grandfather’s work has brought her: a closer and cherished relationship with her father. Chasing Portraits is a model for anyone seeking permanence of a relative’s legacy.
The Hero (de Held), written and directed by Menno Meyjes
Based on the novel De Held by Jessica Durlacher
Subtitles move swiftly at the beginning of this contemporary film set in Holland with Dutch-speaking characters. Sara Silverstein, her husband Jacob, and their teenage children Mich and Tess leave their lives in L.A. to return to Sara’s parents’ home in Holland for a long-term stay. They rent a house near Sara’s parents, for living under the same roof as her difficult father Herman—who survived Auschwitz as a child—would be impossible. As a young woman, Sara had to get away from him, but now, in mid-life, homesickness has brought her back.
The Hero is a thriller with a step-by-step plot and a few moments of Hitchcockian suspense. Juxtaposed to Sara is Anton Raaymakers, whose grandfather was the Nazi sergeant who sent the Silversteins to Auschwitz. As a boy, Anton suffered unforgivable humiliation when Herman rejected his father’s apology for his own Nazi father’s cruelty. Sara witnessed the rejection in the background and several times met Anton’s eyes—a social and ethical barrier forever separating them. As a result of this traumatic scene for Anton, he grew up to become a psychopath seeking revenge on the Silversteins.
In addition to the thriller component, the film offers an in-depth portrait of a woman—Sara—whose behavior is at times realistic and at other times unbelievable. Her educated, well-to-do background, as well as her twenty years in L.A.’s trendy, cosmopolitan milieu, makes it hard to believe that she would hide Anton’s terrifying assaults. But her voice-over tells us: “If you don’t tell, it didn’t happen.”
There are other moments in the film when the viewer’s “willing suspension of disbelief” also wavers—No, Sara would not go to a proven psychopath’s house all alone at night to attempt vigilante justice. However, the serpentine plot, which overall is a good one, needs such scenes to arrive at its denouement. While Hitchcock succeeds at carrying us along with full, terrified belief, The Hero has several iffy moments: How did Herman regain his family’s upper-class home after WWII—the home Sara grew up in as early as the 1960s—when World War II property restitution happened decades later? How did the family pistol Herman tried to use on Sergeant Raaymakers back in 1942 manage to survive in Herman’s hands? Why would Herman hire his enemy Anton to build his enclosed porch that then intentionally leaks? And what was that upsetting business call Herman had at the beginning of the movie that never connected afterward to the plot?
The movie explores several interesting themes, including Herman’s way of dealing with his horrific war experience as a twelve year old. He imagines a different story for his family from what really happened, and we see this story, and later the truth, in intercut, black-and-white flashbacks that work well. Then, the age-old story of feuding families and generational vendettas gives the film depth. Herman takes revenge on the Raaymakers for murdering his family; Anton must pay back Herman for humiliating the Raaymakers and for contributing to his father’s subsequent suicide; Sara attempts to take revenge on Anton for his crimes; another member of her family has no reservations about taking that action. The revenge and vendettas lead to final thinking points in the movie: how Sara’s extreme adoration of her son Mich has to be reconciled with who he decides to be, rather than who she wants him to be; and how killing always leads to more killing. This is a great tangle of a movie.
Cast: Sara Silverstein–Monic Hendrickx; Anton Raaymakers–Daan Schuurmans; Herman Silverstein–Hans Croiset; Jacob Edelman–Fedja van Huêt; Mich Edelman–Thijs Boermans