Does the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival know something the Oscars don’t?
Academy Award nominators chose one film from the Middle East and one from Eastern Europe this year in the foreign language category: Lebanon’s “Capernaum” and Poland’s “Cold War.” Meanwhile, the 2019 CJFF snagged Oscar-submitted dramas from two other nations in those regions: Israel’s “The Cakemaker” and Slovakia’s “The Interpreter.”
The first comes from a country that often gets Academy attention: Ten Israeli movies have been nominated since 1964. But Slovakia has never made the final five, and this seemed its best shot in years.
The title character, 80-year-old Ali, reads a memoir by the ex-Nazi officer who killed his parents. Ali goes to Austria for revenge but ends up taking the officer’s son, loose-living Georg, around Slovakia’s countryside to learn what his father did. They unearth bitter memories, a history of Slovakian complicity in war crimes and lingering, unacknowledged anti-Semitism.
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The CJFF, which runs Feb. 9-March 3, often finds overlooked gems. This one comes from a country with a brief official history – it began when Czechoslovakia split 26 years ago – and a film industry that hasn’t grown to rival neighbors in Poland, Austria or the Czech Republic. How small is it? Martin Sulik has directed seven of Slovakia’s 22 annual Oscar submissions, including this one.
Yet smaller budgets don’t mean lower quality when Austria’s Peter Simonischek (star of the Oscar-nominated “Toni Erdmann” in 2016) plays Georg and Czech veteran Jirí Menzel plays Ali. In his country, Menzel’s best known for directing the Oscar nominees “Closely Watched Trains” (which won in 1967) and “My Sweet Little Village.”
“At the beginning of shooting, Jirka told me he is in this film as an actor, and the responsibility of the result is mine,” says Sulik. “He trusted me. He did not even look at the control monitor. He told me he wanted to see the film only in the cinema. Unfortunately, he was ill during the premiere, so he could see the film only on TV.”
Sulik, who communicated via e-mail through an interpreter, grew up in what was then Czechoslovakia. He’s from Žilina, a small industrial center in the middle of that country. He absorbed the influences of Czech cinema – Menzel’s “Village” came out in 1985, when he was 23 – and a simmering anti-Semitism that hasn’t gone away.
“The Interpreter” reminds viewers that the Slovak State, established in the 1940s with Nazi help, deported thousands of Jews to death camps. Ali’s daughter tells him, “You don’t know how it feels to be scared it could happen again.”
Says Sulik, “Anti-Semitism … rarely occurs openly, but there are prejudices from the past. During recent years, conspiracy theories have started to appear. They (come from) social frustration, media bias and irresponsible statements by politicians. It is not only a Slovakian problem; similar opinions appear in all of Europe.
“It reminds me of an old joke. The conductor of an orchestra complains to his colleague from abroad, ‘Everyone is saying here is anti-Semitism. But I have 12 Jews in the orchestra, and no one cares.’ His colleague thinks about it and says, ‘We also have Jews in the orchestra, but I do not know how many.’ ”
Sulik believes his generation deals with their parents’ horrors in two ways: “Many children of prominent Nazis have unmasked … the monstrosity of the Nazi ideology. The others refused to deal with the history. This is the case with Georg: For his whole life, he has run away from the shadow of his family, until the day he meets Ali.”
Does Slovakia openly discuss its responsibility for war crimes?
“For a long time, the fascist Slovak State was taboo for Slovaks. Some did not speak about the past, because they were victims and wanted to forget their suffering. Others did not speak because they were afraid history can be repeated, and they will be (persecuted) once again. Those who were killing did not want to speak, because they were afraid of punishment.
“The silence was horrible and spoke loudly about our inability to deal with the tragic past. Guilt was attributed to Germans; there was no talk about the collaboration of Slovaks. Today many historical documents have appeared that show a more realistic picture of Slovakia during the Second World War.”
Sulik says reactions to his film vary: “The Jewish community in Slovakia liked it; the neo-Nazis pretended it did not exist. At one debate, I was accused of blaming Slovaks collectively. But altogether, people took the film positively, and discussions after the screenings were interesting. I think the taboo was broken.”
At 56, Sulik has become an elder statesman of an industry that struggled to grow. When he made the satiric “Landscape” in 2000, a survey showed 47 percent of Slovaks would not want to see a Slovak film. Sulik wondered “whether Slovaks really need Slovak culture, whether they are instead just able to assimilate culture from abroad.”
He’s more optimistic today: “After years of suffering, Slovak cinema came to a new dawn. A new generation of young filmmakers shoot not only features but documentaries and animation. Cinema started to reflect life in our society, and Slovaks slowly started to come back to cinema.”
Charlotte Jewish Film Festival
The 2019 Charlotte Jewish Film Festival runs Feb. 9-March 3, mostly at Ballantyne Village Cinemas but also at Temple Israel and Our Town Cinemas in Davidson.
Highlights include Argentina’s “The Last Suit,” in which a Polish-born Holocaust survivor travels from Buenos Aires to Lodz to fulfill a promise he made decades before; “The Cakemaker,” an Israeli film about a German chef who goes to Jerusalem to seek answers about his lover and ends up making pastries in a bakery run by the lover’s wife; and “Golda’s Balcony: The Film.” It documents Tovah Feldshuh’s Broadway performance as Golda Meir, who went from being an American schoolteacher to the fourth Prime Minister of Israel.
An all-festival pass costs $140 for 13 films; individual tickets range from $11 to $25 for the opening gala. Details: 704-554-2059; firstname.lastname@example.org or charlottejewishfilm.com.