A zeal for Jewish film, and its clues to identity

A zeal for Jewish film, and its clues to identity

From Holocaust to humor, tracing cinematic history

Movie maven Eric Goldman says cinematic treatment of the Holocaust — and of Jews in general — has changed.
Movie maven Eric Goldman says cinematic treatment of the Holocaust — and of Jews in general — has changed.

A few years ago, movie maven Eric A. Goldman thought that interest in Holocaust-themed films was subsiding. Even Jewish film festivals began turning away from the subject. “It seemed to be fading, but then — boom! — in this past year we’ve been hit by all these new films,” he said.

What fascinated him is the way treatment of the Holocaust — and of Jews in general — has changed. Citing recent works like the revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds and Defiance, a drama based on the true story of Polish resistance fighters, he suggested the cinematic changes reflect just how comfortable American Jews have become with their own identity, and how much that has become an integral part of American culture, whether or not the directors are Jewish.

The comfort level isn’t the same, he pointed out, for Jews in France and England. In Germany, however, there is a far greater openness about the Holocaust than in the past, and in Israel — after the subject was avoided for decades — filmmakers are revisiting stories coming out of that tragic chapter. Some of these movies, he added, “are better than others.”

Goldman will share his views at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative synagogue in Clark, on Sunday morning, Jan. 24, when he delivers the annual Edith and Mark Lief Lecture. His talk is titled “Cinema as Hagaddah for the Holocaust.”

Goldman is steeped in knowledge of cinema and of how Jews have handled it and been handled by it. He has a PhD in cinema studies from New York University and is adjunct associate professor of film studies at Yeshiva University in New York City and also teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. He has written about the subject extensively and is working on a book about American Jews and cinema.

“My kids and my family make fun of me, but this really is where my interest lies,” he said, in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News from his home in Teaneck.

In 1996 he won a special jury award at the International Jewish Video Competition. He also owns one of the largest collections anywhere of Jewish and Israeli videos through his video publishing and distribution company, Ergo Media, which he founded in 1986.

‘Good for the Jews?’

Talking about the subject, his references stretch from the earliest works, through films like Judgment at Nuremberg and The Diary of Anne Frank to the 1978 mini-series Holocaust, which he describes as a major turning point in general awareness of the Shoa.

When the series came out, Elie Wiesel objected strongly to it. Goldman said the Buchenwald survivor and noted writer felt the series trivialized the subject, giving it the “Hollywood” treatment. “But it set something new in motion,” Goldman said. “The Jewish community came on board and helped promote it. The series was shown in Germany, and it helped change the way Germans saw World War II.”

Goldman cites as the next landmark Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1993 movie, Schindler’s List, and goes on to more recent works, like the slapstick humor of director Judd Apatow and writer-actor Seth Rogen, in films like Knocked Up and Funny People, with characters that are frankly but quite unremarkably Jewish. Looking to the near future, Goldman pointed out that there is a less amusing movie being produced, about mega-swindler Bernie Madoff.

“It’s very telling about where Jews are today, and how comfortable they are,” Goldman said. “In the ’80s they made fun of themselves. Today they don’t have to. The question used to be ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ In this country, we don’t ask that anymore.”

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