Considered as a subset of the road movie, the post-Holocaust, return-to-Poland documentary has been a dismayingly static genre. Most of these films are journeys in only the physical sense. Finding what they’d intended to find, experiencing what they’d always felt, the protagonists typically undergo so little intellectual or spiritual movement that you wonder why they traveled at all.
This is not a complaint you can make against the new documentary by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust. Granted, you once again have the Jewish family in a van with their Polish driver, rolling up to the place where this synagogue was gutted or that gallows put up. The difference, though–the great, indispensable difference–is that with Rudavsky’s help, Daum conceived of this trip as a true journey: a spiritual expedition for his two grown sons, and perhaps for the audience as well.
Profoundly concerned that his children’s Judaism, like “all religions today,” was “in danger of being hijacked by extremists,” Daum took his black-hat sons to Poland in the hope of expanding the circle of their concern by a few inches, so that it might include at least some of the non-Jewish world. His project succeeded so unexpectedly, and spectacularly, that Hiding and Seeking is arguably unique among Holocaust documentaries. Although it’s perhaps too warm, earnest and insistently personal to be a great movie, it’s also far too important–and too moving–for anyone with a conscience to ignore.
A child of Holocaust survivors and member of New York City’s Orthodox community, Daum makes an engagingly obsessed movie character: plump, broad-faced, white-bearded and sixtyish, with a manner so patient and amused that you don’t care that he toys not just with the camera but with everyone else’s mind. His sons care, though. Full-time yeshiva students who now live with their own families in Jerusalem, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva react to their father with the kind of incredulous laughter that might have turned derisive, were it not for the presence of a film crew and the stricture of the fifth commandment. “Papa, we love you,” they keep saying in exasperation, as a way of dismissing his big-headed concerns. So what that he plays them a tape of a prominent American rabbi declaring that Jews must inculcate in their children an implacable hatred for the goyim. Yes, the language is radical, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva admit; but as for the substance…
How can Daum persuade these young men that goodness may be found in the non-Jewish world, even in its darkest corners? The answer is almost perverse: He takes his sons and wife to Poland. And there, toying with his family’s minds, Daum looks for the Catholic farmers who risked their own lives during the war to save his father-in-law, hiding him and his brothers for more than two years.
Although Daum’s search for the rescuers is a kind of brilliant improvisation, there is nothing uncalculated in the way it plays out in Hiding and Seeking. Each scene carefully establishes a stage in the sons’ moral education, the first of which is discomfort: Upon touching down in small-town Poland, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva sidle along the street wearing tentative, sickened grins–and we can see why, since the camera captures the locals as they stare at the black hats and laugh. Next comes the eruption of the sons’ own mockery, helping them to separate themselves from Daum’s holy foolishness. (Since he goes so far as to tuck a memorial slip of paper into a utility pole on an empty lot, the audience may well laugh, too.) But then the first tears fall, when Tzvi Dovid and Akiva encounter sites with enough visible relics to move them; and finally astonishment walks into the picture in the form of a doubled-over, octogenarian Polish farm woman.
This is Honorata Matuszczyk Mucha, inching out of her rural yard to greet the strangers who just drove up out of nowhere. “Madame, do you remember the Jews who were here, in the war?” asks the driver in Polish. Honorata painfully twists her neck upward, so she can see who she’s talking to; she gives a vigorous, off-center nod. Then, in a sure voice, she quickly pronounces the names of all three brothers, and so transforms the entire Daum family.
Hiding and Seeking does not seem an artful film; and yet you feel, at this moment, that the medium must have been invented just to show you the change in these people’s faces. Nothing but film could make the emotion so communicable–and this scene is just the first of an unbroken outpouring, which now flows until the very end of the movie. To say that some of these feelings are regretful, rancorous or unresolved–with Akiva, in particular, striving to change as little as possible–is only to say that Daum and Rudavsky have given you not tap water but a flood, mud included.
Here is the only post-Holocaust, return-to-Poland documentary ever to end with a tearful visit to the Catholic cemetery. Whether such generosity of spirit can heal the world, I don’t know; but I’m sure that Daum and Rudavsky have made the world feel like a better place, if only for ninety minutes.
Too bad that the new anti-Semites–who don’t exist, according to Brian Klug in The Nation–want to see them both dead.
More Poland, more Jews: I hope Nation readers in the New York area will visit the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center for the retrospective History Lessons: The Films of Jerzy Kawalerowicz (through February 12), which includes screenings of his remarkable 1982 drama Austeria. Set in the countryside of Polish Galicia (the director’s native landscape) on the first day of World War I, Austeria is the story of all sorts of Jews–secular, Orthodox, Hasidic, theatrical–holed up in a wayside inn as the Cossacks approach. In effect, the film re-creates in miniature a vanished world, complete with its rituals, songs, bickering, humor and guilty sexiness. This achievement, which is considerable in itself, is made all the more compelling in Austeria by the character of the salty old innkeeper, Tag (Franciszek Pieczka), who understands his guests so well that he can neither be one of them nor put himself at a distance.
One of the directors who remade Polish cinema in the 1950s, Kawalerowicz went on to create a fascinating range of historical films: from the investigative drama Death of a President (1977), set in 1920s Poland, to lavish but literate sword-and-sandal epics (Pharaoh, 1966 and Quo Vadis, 2001). He is not as well-known in this country as such colleagues from the Polish Spring as Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk–and that makes the Walter Reade series all the more welcome. For complete information: (212) 875-5600 or www.filmlinc.com.
Here’s some of what you can pick up by watching Li Yang’s noirish thriller Blind Shaft, which is having its US theatrical debut at New York’s Film Forum:
Kids in China currently leave school in great numbers because their families can’t meet the fees, and villages are losing their men because there’s not enough paying work at home. Meanwhile, provincial cities and towns are filling up with drifters willing to work cheap–even in the privately owned coal mines, where you rent your safety helmet from the boss and then pray for the best. The standard payoff to the family of a dead miner: 30,000 yuan, or about $3,600.
All this is interesting enough as information–so interesting that the Chinese government would prefer that Blind Shaft not be shown. But if you go to the film expecting an exposé, then you will be underestimating Li Yang’s cleverness in telling a story. He treats the scandalous details as a background; the foreground belongs to his two main characters, Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao), who take poverty and corruption so much for granted that they make a practice of murdering their fellow coal miners, then pretending to be family members so they can collect the hush money.
Shot for the most part with a hand-held camera, sometimes in the depths of actual coal mines in the dry and hilly northwest, Blind Shaft starts out looking like a documentary but quickly turns into a suspense film. With the cash acquired through their latest murder, Song and Tang take off to enjoy a bender in town–boozing, whoring, singing a parody karaoke version of “Long Live Socialism”–and to recruit their next victim. He shows up at the day-labor market fresh off the bus: a 16-year-old boy, Yuan (Wang Baoqiang), who wears a perpetually candid expression and a jacket much too light for the weather. Within minutes, Yuan is begging to go to the coal mines and promising to call Song “uncle” at every opportunity. You see him get off the bus in the gray and lumpish landscape and trudge after the older men, struggling up and down a mountain for the sake of getting murdered; and from that point on, Blind Shaft is about the long, tense wait for a shovel to strike a skull in the blackness of a tunnel.
Blind Shaft might have been a better film if Yuan had been a little worse of a character. Even a studious, sexually immature 16-year-old would be more headstrong than this kid; maybe a whack with a shovel would help wise him up. Song, on the other hand, is no better than he should be–always putting off the murder, out of distaste for killing a boy, but never actually canceling it–and the dog-faced Tang is all too credible in his remorselessness. He’s a human equivalent to the landscape of Blind Shaft, with its bare shacks, rubble and rushing wind. Maybe that’s why your sympathies never lie entirely with the prospective victim. Through the sheer force of its physical details, Blind Shaft pushes you to see through the killers’ eyes.
Brief, harsh, brutal–and informative–Blind Shaft is the best crime movie now on the screen.