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The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema, edited by Lawrence Baron. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011. 442 pp. $39.95.
Given the fact that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe virtually created Hollywood, and certainly were also heavily involved in the establishment of film industries in Great Britain, France, Germany, the Benelux countries and much of Eastern Europe, it’s not surprising that Jews have been portrayed in the cinema since its earliest days. What is more surprising is how few films were actually made about Jewish life and culture, at least during the first seventy years of the cinema’s existence. Not only antisemites considered the film industry a “Jewish” business, until recently more than 60 percent of the American public believed Hollywood to be controlled by Jews. The wish for assimilation, the need for profits from a mass market audience, and the desire to remain invisible politically, socially, or ethnically, all these factors conspired to eliminate any Jewish-themed films from the production slate.
Hollywood, in particular, avoided Jewish-themed films like the plague, at least until ethnicity became fashionable in the 1970s, producing not more than a handful of films during the classical studio period from the 1920s to the 1960s. Ironically, American cinema produced many more films with Jewish characters and themes before the establishment of Hollywood, ca. 1917, but most of those films have disappeared. Thus, except for the budding film production in pre-state Israel and Yiddish film production in New York and Warsaw, Jews remained virtually invisible for decades in the world’s cinemas. The end of World War II and the Shoah led to further repression of Jewish themes, possibly because the Holocaust itself was wiped from collective memory for at least two decades after the war. In the last forty years, however, more Jewish-themed films have been produced than anyone can count, making Lawrence Baron’s job in the present anthology exceedingly difficult.
Having taught a course on Jewish themes in the cinema for eighteen years, and wishing to write the “definitive survey of the depiction of Jews and Judaism in world cinema,” Baron was quickly overwhelmed by the project. He therefore decided to put together an anthology as a teaching text, utilizing the massive amount of literature already available in print. Indeed the present anthology collects no less than fifty-four essays on fifty-nine films, in more than 400 pages of double-columned text, a veritable Walmart on Jewish cinema with something for everyone. And yet, because the editor has only chosen films that are easily available in this country on DVD, the anthology is far from inclusive. Significant gaps include the first thirty-five years of silent cinema, or any German, Russian, or English films made before 1960. But then again, if we look at the structure of the table of contents, the goal of the anthology seems to be to demonstrate how the history of Judism is reflected in modern cinema, not a history of Jewish cinema: “1. Advancement and Animosity in Western Europe 1874–1924, 2. Eastern Europe 1881–1921, 3. Americanization of Jewish Immigrants, 1880–1932, 4. Revolutionary Alternatives: Zionism and Communism, 5. The Holocaust and Its Repercussions, 6. Israel’s Heroic Years, 1947–1967, 7. Acceptance in Postwar America, 1945–1977, 8. A Diverse Dispora, 9. Contemporary Israeli Experiences, 10. Contemporary American Jewish Identities.” One could quibble about this somewhat arbitrary periodization of Jewish history, but Baron himself maintains in his introduction: “In addition to contexualizing films in terms of when and where they were produced, or gauging their historical verisimilitude or fidelity to the fictional works from which they were adapted, the authors in this anthology employ a variety of approaches to examine how films distort, interpret, and reflect the events and trends they purport to portray” (pp. 6–7).
The extreme heterogeneity in critical approaches is a reflection of the broad palette of authors, many of whom are specialists in Jewish history and literature, but not in film studies. The intended readership also seems to run the gamut from an essay for middle-schoolers to pieces for graduate students and professors, each contribution running between five and ten pages. Some of this heterogeneity is due to the fact that 66 percent of the essays have been abridged, excerpted, republished, or expanded from other published sources whose purpose may not have been the same as the editor’s. As a result, Baron has created a teaching anthology, which almost anyone can use to put together almost any kind of Jewish-themed film course.
The strengths and weaknesses of the selection are exemplified by any random chapter, but, for brevity’s sake, I will only discuss Chapter One, which begins with a piece on Disraeli (1929) that hardly mentions the Warner Brothers film, focusing instead on the historical personage. The second essay on The Life of Emile Zola (1937) does a better job of analyzing the film, especially as a parable for Nazi Germany, but fails to mention the not unimportant fact that two of the scriptwriters and the director were Jewish refugees from Berlin. The editor’s own essay on Prisoner of Honor (1991) is excellent in its terseness, but the film itself is relatively mediocre. Which brings up a question, is it productive to teach bad films, because of their historical lessons, when students are already resistant to old films (defined as made before 1990)? The reading of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion and its “little Jewish corporal,” played by Marcel Dalio, is nuanced and sophisticated at a level that many other essays here can only aspire to. The Chariots of Fire essay is all about British Jewry, but the film is much more about sports than about Abrahams’ Judaism. Each essay includes a short bibliography and other internet sources to give students further perspective.
There are many excellent essays in this anthology, and certainly enough to put together a one semester film course, but the sheer mass of problematic material made this reviewer wish the editor had been a bit more selective and focused in his choice of essays.
University of California, Los Angeles