Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Funny, You Don't Look Bigoted (originally published 10/92)

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for socially conscious movies. Even the ones that aren’t so good deserve some points for having their hearts in the right places, it seems to me. In this most expensive and therefore most bottom line driven of all art forms, it takes a special kind of fortitude to approach the ticket buying public with cautionary tales and jeremiads.

That’s why I plan to buy a ticket to see a film called “School Ties,” and why I will want very much to like it. It tells the story of a Jewish boy trying to cope with the vicious anti-Semitism of his classmates at a private school during the 1950s. Considering the fact that most of the entrepreneurs who founded the American film industry were Jewish, it’s surprising how few films down through the years have confronted the problem of anti-Semitism. Still, there are a few. Here are some of the better ones.

“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947). Director Elia Kazan’s film version of the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, although no longer the bombshell it was when initially released, nevertheless remains potent. Gregory Peck plays a magazine feature writer who has been assigned to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. Searching for a unique slant for his articles, he hits upon the idea of posing as a Jew for six weeks to see if people act differently toward him. He is utterly unprepared for the drastic changes in his life that are brought about by the simple act of changing the name on his mailbox from “Green” to “Greenberg.” Even the woman with whom he has recently become romantically involved behaves differently toward him.

“Crossfire” (1947). Released the same year as “Gentleman’s Agreement,” this dark and brooding little picture features Robert Ryan as a soldier whose hatred of Jews leads him to commit murder. We watch in horror as he flies into a rage at an inoffensive Jewish man who is seated next to him in a bar. Unwilling or unable to contain his irrational hatred, he ultimately picks a fight with this perfect stranger and beats him to death. The remainder of the film focuses on the police investigation of the crime. One thing puzzles the investigators: the lack of any apparent motive. As the investigation proceeds, they slowly come to the awful realization that this was a crime of pure hatred, having nothing to do with the victim as an individual. For a sampling of how raw the bigotry is, and how nakedly the film portrays it, have a look at the film's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Great Dictator” (1940). In his first talking picture, Charlie Chaplin decided to satirize Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Chaplin himself plays two roles, one as Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, and one as a little Jewish barber. Hynkel, like Hitler, persecutes the Jews, including our barber friend. Despite the fact that this is a comedy, Chaplin did not shrink from portraying the cruelty of the oppressors in scenes of straight drama.

“Cabaret” (1972). Bob Fosse’s film version of the Broadway musical stars Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. The main story line chronicles the odd relationship between a writer and an eccentric cabaret singer. The setting is Berlin during the 1930s, a time when no one was sure yet how seriously to take the Nazi party, with their funny little stiff-arm salute. An important subplot involves a Jewish couple who are victimized by the Nazis. By the end of the film, it is clear that those who thought the Nazis were a joke have made a tragic error in judgment. “Cabaret” is based on an earlier (non-musical) film called “I Am a Camera” (1955), which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood’s book “Goodbye to Berlin.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971). The musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the milkman and the small Russian village of Anatevka is set before the Russian Revolution, when the Czar was still in power. The Jews of Anatevka therefore live under the constant threat of a mass execution, or pogrom, as they were called. The Czar or his officials could order a pogrom at any time, for strategic purposes or just on a whim. Interestingly, the local officials of the Czar, who live in Anatevka along with the Jews, seem sympathetic to them. Feeling no personal enmity, they are “just following orders.” In some ways, this is anti-Semitism at its most frightening.

The collective message of these films is that intolerance is forever busy. It’s good to know that some filmmakers are still about the business of keeping us reminded.

No comments: