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Face to Face With History



The turning point in Frank Borzage's magnificent The Mortal Storm (1940), one of the first Hollywood films to condemn Nazism, is a scene in which a professor in southern Germany, Roth, witnesses a book burning. Alone in his study at night, he sees the light from the fire dancing on his walls and goes to a balcony to watch the scene below. From street level, we see a young man denouncing the writers whose books are being thrown into the flames. Cuts back to Roth's reactions reinforce the scene's spatial—and moral—oppositions.

There's a similar scene midway through Amos Gitai's richly detailed, deeply humane 1989 film about two women who are friends in 1920s Germany and later become early Jewish immigrants to Palestine. (Berlin-Jerusalem, filmed in German, Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, and English with English subtitles, is being shown July 6 and 7 as one of 22 Gitai films—many of them local premieres—in a Facets Multimedia retrospective; Gitai will attend both screenings.) Else, a character based on the German expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler, is drawn to her Berlin window by the glow of a fire and descends to walk directly in front of the book-burning crowd. Only when two women identify Else as a Jew does Gitai cut to a close-up of her, suddenly isolated.

A far subtler director than most, Borzage nevertheless uses spatial separation to express moral opposition: good versus evil, us versus them. Such distinctions have long been a staple of American commercial filmmaking. While in no way equating Else with the Nazis, Gitai presents her as part of the tapestry of German society. He sees individualism not as an inherent value, the Hollywood view, but as the result of historical forces.

Gitai makes this point most strongly through long takes that embed characters in their milieu. The Nazis first appear in the film—signaling that the action has likely shifted to the 1930s—in a single take: we see thugs in a cafe passing out leaflets and hurling anti-Jewish epithets while the camera pivots around Else and her son, standing together yet very much alone. Realizing that the Nazis are now an inextricable part of her country—not a "nightmare [that] will go away," as her boyfriend says—Else begins to see that she must leave. After the book burning (which follows the death of her son), she goes immediately to a train station and buys a ticket to Zurich. (Gitai's father, a Bauhaus student who was working with Mies van der Rohe in Berlin in 1933, took a similar route through Switzerland to Palestine.)

Gitai is neither a Jewish nationalist nor the "self-hating Jew" I heard an audience member call him during his 1989 Chicago appearance. Rather he presents here the inherent contradictions of early Zionism. The other character living in 1920s Berlin is Tania, a fiery revolutionary who'd been part of a Minsk commune, then fled after participating in an assassination attempt. Once in Palestine, she helps found an early kibbutz. Tania is now a peace-loving idealist, while Else moves to Palestine not out of idealism but because she has nowhere else to go. (Gitai's father went there only after the Swiss began returning Jewish refugees to Germany.)

We meet the two protagonists in Berlin in the second shot, a long take (the film opens with an extended movement over the Palestinian desert). We see a violinist in a crumbling building, a man carrying a Red flag shouting communist slogans, and four thin, odd-looking women—signaling the era's cultural diversity, which borders on chaos. The composition echoes German expressionist painting; Gitai's cinematographer, the masterful Henri Alekan, has said they were looking for "something close" to the style of painters Otto Dix and George Grosz. This tight, self-enclosed group shot is disrupted when the women walk in different directions and the camera follows one of them: breaking his own stylistic illusion, Gitai expresses the relativity of style—and ideology. Both are the products of a particular moment in time: for Gitai, truth is always provisional, contingent on social and historical circumstance.

This long introductory take shifts perspective many times, offering a variety of moving and static shots, close-ups and long shots. Eventually the camera finds Tania, who makes an impassioned speech; afterward she and Else embrace. Next we cut to three figures, one of them Tania, walking across the desert; they're founding, or joining, a pre-Israel kibbutz on land purchased from Arabs. In what is perhaps the most tightly ordered, harmonious shot in the film, they pass through a field cultivated by Arabs. It fills the frame with green while an Arab offers them food, saying, "We wish to offer you a gift from our land."

It's a central myth of Zionism that the Arabs had largely abandoned the land in Palestine. A recent biography of Austrian Zionist Theodor Herzl reveals that he suppressed the report of a Jewish mathematician sent to Palestine to establish this fact when he reported the opposite. In this single image of a well-ordered agrarian culture, Gitai offers his own refutation; indeed, every moment of his film, with its richly layered images and complex sound track (which includes many Lasker-Schuler poems), is dense with historical allusions.

Gitai's camera also neatly articulates the communitarianism of Tania's kibbutz. When a new member arrives and is dining with the others at a table, several subtle reframings establish everyone's interdependence. Then the camera settles into a static composition centered on a figure in the background who ritually removes the novice's possessions from his suitcase while the group pronounces each one "ours."

Citing the story of David and Bathsheba, Gitai has observed that the characters of the Old Testament are "no angels." He's also expressed a fascination with utopias—and their failure. Soon, in fact, Tania's kibbutz decides to seize some additional land from Arabs, over her protests. Every action to improve things also involves a loss, and no one is all right or all wrong (save the Nazis). Making a powerful implicit argument for peace, Gitai offers a realistic vision far removed from the moral oversimplification and sentimentality of a film like Vittorio De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic, The Bicycle Thief.

Born in Haifa in 1950, Gitai made many documentaries before starting to write and direct fictional features. For much of the 80s and 90s, after some of his films were censored in Israel, he lived in "exile" in Paris, and his cinema is rich with references to displacement and dislocation. It's also doubtless influenced by his early training as an architect. Scholar Paul Willimen writes of his "very mobile camera gliding through spaces sculpted by light."

What's most powerful about Berlin-Jerusalem, as other critics have observed, is the way Gitai links characters, space, and time. No moment is an isolated instance of mastery or triumph; we're always aware of both the weight of the past and of each instant's progression toward an uncertain future. Gitai conflates the passage of characters through space with the sometimes tragic irreversibility of time: once Else has witnessed the book burning, there can be no turning back—and therefore she must flee.

Gitai never oversimplifies the complexity of territorial claims. One of the outdoor kibbutz scenes appears to echo a scene in Howard Hawks's monumental western Red River (1947), in which two Mexicans ride up to Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and inform him that the land he's seized for his ranch belongs to their boss. Dunson responds by shooting one of them. In Berlin-Jerusalem a French sponsor of the kibbutz and his assistant ride up to the settlers to report their difficulty raising money; though Gitai makes a rare (for him) use of oppositional cutting, the actual discussion is tentative, qualified.

Gitai intercuts scenes in Berlin (actually shot in France) with scenes in Palestine to offer a fully nuanced history rather than simply build a case that persecuted Jews need a home—though that's part of his argument too. In one scene in Germany, Else, who's broke, learns from her publisher that people aren't buying her books—and she takes back a drawing she'd given him, planning to sell it. The scene following this one shows the newcomer's surrender of his property to the kibbutz. In the first, Gitai underlines the ironies inherent in capitalist economies: a drawing is a commodity while a poet goes unsupported. The second offers an alternative while also foreshadowing the seizure of more land as "ours."

The film's final long take begins when Else enters, we hear an offscreen explosion, and the camera follows her as she walks through a city, the explosion triggering a movement forward through history. It recalls the most famous act of Zionist terrorism, the deadly 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel. Soon we see graffiti dated 1962 and newer-model cars and hear news reports (on a sound track that also recapitulates sounds from the opening) of 1989 Arab-Israeli clashes. By all accounts Jerusalem is a city in which different historical periods are more visible than most; the ending of Gitai's film equates space with time and conflates the inexorability of history's progression with the horrors of violence. When Else leaves the frame, the camera continues through the city: human lives are temporary, and our protagonists have vanished into the past.

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