Friday, August 3, 2007

Jason goes to Jewfest--Tuesday, July 31

So I've actually been at Jewfest all week, but I've been too busy to write. Luckily tonight there's no movies because of the sabbath. However, there are movies tomorrow, and the sabbath doesn't end until sundown Saturday. What's up with that?

Anyway, now is my chance to write up the movies I've been seeing, starting with last Tuesday. First up was a short and feature about, of all things, poetry. I'm not a poet, and I don't pretend to "get" poetry. Honestly, I saw this because it was scheduled at a good time for me. And there's a reason I do stuff like that, because every so often I'll find a fantastic movie that just blows me away, and that's exactly what happened (with the feature). First, the short, "Ezekiel's Wheels" was the American-Israeli poet Shirley Kaufman reading one of her new works, "Ezekiel's Wheels". The poem starts with her struggle with starting to go blind (she has since recovered) and grows to an all-consuming philosophy, incorporating art, scripture, and life. The movie is mostly her reading, with some sparsely used stock footage, mostly of bombs. It's not bad, but it's really for poetry enthusiasts.

But the feature, "So Long Are You Young" was amazing and can really appeal to anyone. It's a documentary about Samuel Ullman and his poem "Youth". The story in a nutshell: Samuel Ullman was a German Jewish immigrant to America in the late 1800's. Specifically, he settled in Birmingham, Alabama. He was mostly a poor merchant, but very active in community service, including serving on the school board and pushing for equal schooling for black children. In the early 1900's, mourning the death of his wife and going deaf, he wrote "Youth", which promptly sold very few copies. However, it had it's admirers, although it was often reprinted without attribution. One of those unattributed (and slightly corrupted) copies was given to Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he was stationed in the Philippines. When MacArthur took charge of rebuilding Japan after the war, he kept a copy of the poem in his office. The devastated, demoralized Japanese took it to heart, and drew courage and inspiration from it. One of those who read the poem was Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of a successful electronics company that specialized in cheap versions of American products. He had an idea for a grand expansion of his company, but feared in his 70's that he was too old and feeble to pull it off. After reading the poem, he went ahead and founded Panasonic. Although few Americans know the poem, much less the poet, it's practically mandatory reading for Japanese CEO's, and is largely credited with Japan's post-war recovery. Pretty amazing, I have nothing to add. I just really dig true stories of small events with amazingly wide-reaching effects (for another of these types of stories, also with a Jewish twist, check out "Beethoven's Hair")

And the second movie of the night was the one I've been waiting for since I first heard about it. "My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler", is a wacky slapstick comedy about Hitler. Specifically, Hitler near the end of the war. He's supposed to be preparing a New Year's Day speech to inspire the German people to victory, but he's stuck in a depressed nervous breakdown. So Goebbels has a brilliant idea to get him an acting coach. So he finds his old acting coach, Adolf Gruenbaum. It was easy, since he's in a concentration camp all they have to do is track down his number and find out if he's still alive. The idea is a Jewish instructor will inspire Hitler's greatest strength--his rage. Problem is, Gruenbaum's methods work, and Hitler starts opening up to him. Meanwhile, Gruenbaum starts out looking for a chance to kill Hitler, barely fails at first, then decides to not kill him at first because they'd certainly kill him and his family, but eventually because he maybe feels sorry for the bed-wetting, pathetic little twerp whose father beat him. The most fascinating thing for me when watching it was noticing how often just one person would laugh. Everyone is so tense with the subject matter that very rarely can everyone just relax and laugh. For me, it was when Gruenbaum is sent back to his camp, and when Hitler asks for him Goebbels explains that he's unavailable because he went "on holiday with his family". Just the idea of a) a Jew being able to go on holiday in Germany during WWII, and b) someone working closely with Hitler being allowed to go on holiday with a deadline looming in 3 days, and c) the idea that he couldn't postpone his holiday until after the speech, and d) Hitler buys it. That's funny for me. But my favorite scene has to be when Gruenbaum gets Hitler to get down on all fours and bark like a dog as an "exercise". Hitler's dog, "Blondi" runs over and mounts him. At that moment I thought, "dude, I'm watching a dog hump Hitler. I'm the happiest Jew in the world right now".

I wanted to end this post on that point, but I should mention that Hitler was played by Helge Schneider, a famous German comedian (described in the introduction as the equivalent of Steve Martin in Germany). And Guenbaum was played by Ulrich Mühe, who was brilliant in "The Lives of Others" and who tragically died of stomach cancer just two weeks ago. Thank you for you final role, Ulrich!

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