Wednesday, November 21, 2018


THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ is an urgent and tightly drawn documentary from Matthew Shoychet about the recent trial of Oskar Groening, a nonagenarian ex-SS officer living an ostensibly nondescript life in Germany until prosecuted for accessory to mass murder.  Featuring commentary from luminaries such as Alan Dershowitz - a most fascinating interview with the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the man who ran Auschwitz -  as well as interviews with the holocaust survivors who became co-plaintiffs, the doc takes us efficiently through the process of the trial, while also facing head on the difficult philosophical issues it raised. First and foremost is the question of whether there is a statute of limitations on criminal guilt. The second is whether someone who did not literally put the gas into the chamber can be accused of murder.  The third is whether, in terms of moral guilt, it is possible or desirable to forgive. 

On the first question, the documentary takes us through the shameful way in which much of Europe tried to conveniently forget the Holocaust in the decades after the way, and reintegrated former Nazis into civilian life. In that sense, THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ is the logical sequel to THE WALDHEIM WALTZ, also playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival.  As one of the plaintiffs says, he is all we have - if we have to establish legal guilt through Groening, then we'll take that.  On the second question, the historical attitude has again been quite slippery, but the doc makes the convincing argument that although only a cog in the machine, that killing machine could not have operated without its cogs. Not everyone can claim to just have been doing their job, or involved with the slave labour part of the camp, or too scared to say no. On the third question, the doc shows both sides of the argument. We have the compelling argument from a survivor and plaintiff that the only true way to triumph over an enemy is to forgive.  But you have the evident disgust of others.  These are not simple or easy questions to deal with.

Perhaps the most powerful message of the doc is just how relevant how we treat the perpetrators of the Holocaust is today.  This is not simply a matter of writing historic injustices - although that is also of paramount importance. How we treat murderers also sends a signal to those who would perpetrate genocide today. And perhaps the fact that justice will seek you out, no matter how long it takes, will do something to prevent the ongoing mass murders of people based on race or religion.  It's also important to get the facts on the record to defang deniers and to remind the younger generations of what happened so that they can be alert when they see anti-Semitism rise again. To that end, this documentary is utterly timely, and does not shy away from showing the anti-Semitic chants of the neo-nazis in Charlottesville.    

THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ has a running time of 78 minutes.  It does not yet have a commercial release date in the UK but is playing the UK Jewish Film Festival.

The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ - UK Jewish Film Festival

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ is a quietly powerful and beautifully curated documentary by journalist Ruth Beckermann about the election campaign of the late 80s Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.  It opens and closes with Beckermann's own black and white footage of the diplomat turned politician and later the public reactions to revelations that he had - at best - falsified his war record and - at worst - been implicated in war crimes against partisans, and of being part of the Nazi apparatus that facilitated the deportation of Jews from Salonika. Beckermann rightly shows how the war record of Waldheim is, in a sense, not the most important point.  The real crime is his seeming inability to tell the truth - his continual plea that the Austrians should also be seen as victims - and how this reflects the wider weirdness that Austrians have around their record during World War Two.  A commentator at the time rightly points out that the Allies let Austria off the hook with the concept that they were the "first victim" of Hitler. And indeed this may be right when we consider the Austrian State. Nonetheless, once the anschluss was completed, Austrian individuals were, just as Germans, members of the Nazi armed forces, intelligence services, the SS, and were of course implicated in war crimes. Not least Waldheim's one time boss, Alexander Loehr.  

Perhaps the most haunting this in this film is not Waldheim's slippery smugness, but the continued anti-semitism in 1980s Austria.  The coded language when Waldheim or other commentators speak of a small minority of influential people in the media attacking Waldheim is dog-whistle speech. Even worse, the blatant anti-semitism in the streets of Vienna. When man asks an anti-semite what makes him feel so complacent that he can shout anti-semitic abuse in St Stephen's Square. The unspoken response is that he feels sanctioned by the election of a man he thinks shares his views. 

Beckermann chooses to only use footage up to the and shortly after the election of Waldheim and barring a few comments about her own footage she does not editorialise about what this shameful episode might say about contemporary Austria or politics more widely.  Certainly, there are lessons one might draw about Trump sanctioning a renewed confidence among American white supremacists.  But far more disturbingly, I would want to know whether this kind of base-line historical equivocation and knee-jerk racism still exists in Austria. Is there still an older generation that thinks the Jews had it coming? If the attitudes hadn't changed between 1946 and 1986 have they really changed now?  Is the way the Holocaust and Austria's role in it is taught in schools there different?  Or is the convenient denial still present?  

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ has a running time of 93 minutes. It played Berlin 2018 where it won the Original Documentary Award. It played Sheffield DocFest earlier this year, and is currently playing at the UK Jewish Film Festival.  It is the official submission of Austria for the Oscars 2019. 

The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


David Mackenzie (HELL OR HIGH WATER) shifts gears to medieval Scotland for his Netflix film, OUTLAW KING. It stars Chris Pine with a dubious Scottish accent as Scottish clan leader and aspirant king, Robert Bruce.  As the movie opens his dad is bending the knee to evil imperialist King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane, the first of many GoT alum) - this is not a film that traffics in nuance. We are asked to believe that a newly head of the family Robert can  anachronistically resist schtupping his new bride (feisty Florence Pugh) while also letting him get away with murdering his rival for the crown. This film REALLY wants us to like its protagonist! So Robert raises a rebel army and takes on the English, helped mightily by the fact that the legendary king dies leaving his moron son in charge.  The film therefore culminates in a very cool battle scene that more than compensates for its dodgy accents, two-dimensional characterisations, and stilted opening twenty minutes. In fact, it's so well done, and so similar in concept to a key moment at Waterloo, that I basically now want Mackenzie to direct a film about that. Rare praise indeed from the woman who runs the @relivewaterloo twitter account and pretty much worships the Sergei Bondarchuk version!

OUTLAW KING is rated R and has a running time of 121 minutes.  The film played both Toronto and London 2018 and was released on Netflix last week. 


BACK TO BERLIN is a moving and beautifully constructed documentary by investigative journalist Catherine Lurie-Alt. It uses the framing device of a group of motorcyclists retracing the route of their ancestors who participated in the Maccabian games 80 years ago, to re-examine their shared history of the Holocaust and to comment on contemporary anti-semitism. The results are deeply personal, raw and affecting but also insightful.  

The games were started as a kind of PR slash morale-boosting stunt for Jewish athletes in the 1930s - a decade that would see the infamous Berlin Olympics where German Jews were explicitly banned and even more horrifying - many countries put pressure or finagled it so Jewish athletes weren't selected so as to appease the Nazi regime.  Accordingly, it is particularly poignant to see contemporary riders cross Europe to Berlin where the 2015 Maccabian games was held in the stadium so closely associated with the most horrific period in Jewish history.  

The really affecting this is seeing descendants of holocaust victims and survivors retell their stories, intercut with footage from the 1930s and 1940s of persecution and violence. The frustrating and deeply awful thing is seeing how racial and religious prejudice still manifests itself along the journey through Eastern then Central Europe and up to Germany. Very early on, we see a Greek man explain how it's still controversial to fly an Israeli flag - alone among national flags - in Greece.  Later we see a grand-daughter here a son recount the story of his mother's escape from persecution in Hungary in the very spot where it took place. And yet in this very decade, those riders have to have a police escort because Jews continue to be persecuted. The most poignant part of the documentary sees the riders take a detour to Auschwitz - a horror their ancestors couldn't have imagined. It's genuinely shocking to realise that this seemingly lost distant nightmare is still a waking horror for a survivor who recounts how he was on a train to Auschwitz and survived because of the quick-thinking of his mother.  It's this personal testimony that makes this film so vital and urgent today - especially, at a time of resurgent racial violence.

BACK TO BERLIN has a running time of 79 minutes and is rated 12A. The film will be released in the UK on November 23rd 2018. 


BLACKKKLANSMAN is a superb, searing, angry film from a very angry film-maker. The astonishing thing is that the film-maker - Spike Lee - manages to command such self-discipline despite his anger, and manages to fashion a film that is both brutal and funny. How many film-makers could straddle that line so expertly? How many could command such a knowledge of film history as to weave classic depictions of racism in a film that feels so authentically of the 1970s, and yet so seamlessly builds to Charlottesville and contemporary racial violence?   To say BLACKKKLANSMAN is a tour de force is an under-statement.  It is provocative, goofy, feel-good, feel-distraught, bloodied but unbowed.  This is cinema at its most heightened, powerful and disturbing.  

The movie opens with a provocation that may have passed some viewers by. Spike Lee spends much of this film both indicting and redeeming mainstream Hollywood films from their role in normalising racism. He opens with GONE WITH THE WIND - a film that depicts subservient slaves oh-so-happy to be taken care off by their paternalistic owners, and actually has a couple of them saye a white girl from rape.  He then has one of Hollywood's most famous black activists - the magnificent Harry Belafonte - indict THE BIRTH OF A NATION for resuscitating the popularity of the KKK. Belafonte shows how the film inspired a lynching, and was praised by then President Woodrow Wilson as "history written in lightning".  Belafonte/Lee show us explicit photographs of what happened to the victim.  Lee  then intercuts this with footage of the KKK recruits being inducted, complete with white hoods, in the 1970s of the main action of the film.  Finally, Lee takes his fictional film and directly connects its subject matter to contemporary America, showing footage of the racial violence in Charlottesville and Trump's mealy-mouthed false equivalence between the white supremacists and those opposing them. It's as if he's saying to us - remember that one president who said how the KKK looked amazing in that super popular film. Well, now I'm taking back your cinema screens and showing you another president, a hundred years later, being similarly racist, and you WILL watch and be shocked and provoked. And boy was it shocking.  Even when you see this footage on twitter videos, or on the news on TV, it's just different - visceral - seeing it on the big screen, especially after the two hours of build up that Spike gives it.

So back to the plot. The film is based on the almost absurd true story of a black cop who infiltrated the Klan back in the 1970s. He did this by ringing them up and asking for info and pretending to want to join.  He even got so far as to speak to David Duke! Of course, when he needed to actually attend those meetings and get enough evidence to arrest people he had to send in someone who was actually white - in this case an actually Jewish cop. So the Klan was doubly fooled.  John David Washington (son of Denzel) gives a quietly powerful portrait of the black cop - Ron Stallworth - and it's actually worth noting his defense of being a cop in the first place to his radical girlfriend. It's a message many in contemporary America need to hear.  There's something noble in being a cop - not all cops have to be racists. Adam Driver is similarly impressive as the Jewish cop who has never particularly felt the power of his race or religion and is forced to address his "passing" when he hears explicit anti-semitism of the first time. 

As the film progresses we see the imposter inducting into the Klan - a Klan that is planning bomb attacks against its enemies. The superficial tension comes from whether our cops will be exposed, and whether the attack will go ahead. And it works. But the real tension comes from Lee taking us right up against the most horrid racism, and keeping us there for 2 hours, and seeing if we will flinch from seeing it play out to its contemporary climax. When it comes it feels earned, brave and bold.  

BLACKKKLANSMAN played Cannes 2018 where it won the Grand Prix. It was released in cinemas this summer and is now available to rent and own. The film is rated R and has a running time of 135 minutes. 


PATH OF BLOOD is a truly fascinating and disturbing documentary that takes us inside the Al Qaeda campaign of terror inside Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2009.  The documentary has been expertly curated by director Jonathan Hacker and editor Peter Haddon from 500 hours of footage provided by Saudi security services of their own raids on Al Qaeda facilities, and of Al Qaeda's own home videos of their training camps, actions, funerals and recording sessions.  The result is a deeply insightful and uncomfortably personal glimpse at how a terror cell behaves.  At times, these are goofy kids, preening for the cameras, or playing school sports day games in the desert. And then in a flash they pose with rocket launchers and don suicide vests to deliver final statements to camera before a suicide mission.  We see them rehearse manoeuvres to kill, and we see them dead.  In the particularly disturbing scene shown above, we see a young dead man being kissed by his colleagues before his funeral. We also see the devastation he has wrought - blasted buildings, blood-stained blankets covering bodies, shattered window panes and bloodied car-seats, offices, homes. This is not a documentary for the faint-hearted.

The discipline of the documentary is not to use talking heads to comment on the action. Although this is, at times, frustrating, because it allows the hypocrisy of the Saudi ruling family in simultaneously sponsoring Wahhabi fundamentalism, it is - on the whole - the right decision, because it keeps the focus firmly, claustrophobically, on the terrorists.  Through their own words, deeds, reactions,  and propaganda, voiced by Tom Hollander, we have a sickening view of their mindset.  Their actions are sometimes very hard to watch indeed.  We see an American expat blindfolded and tortured.  The video cuts to black but we continue to hear the audio as he is threatened with a beheading that we know will occur. This is brutal viewing:  92 minutes has never felt so long but for the right reasons.  

If PATH OF BLOOD is rightly disturbing it's also compulsory viewing for all of us who live in a world that is still subject to terror, whether from Al Qaeda or its even more vicious stepchildren, ISIS and Boko Haram. On a more meta level it's also fascinating to just see Saudi Arabia - a country that is so closed off to us and yet seems to dominate so much political discourse. Just seeing ordinary streets, houses, offices is of itself fascinating. And of course the fact that the footage was released is of interest in trying to pick through the runes of what Saudi leadership's actual position is on fundamentalism. 

PATH OF BLOOD has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated R. The movie will be released on DVD in the UK on November 26th.