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by Alex Deleon, September 29, 2005
 for <>
"Just an Ordinary Jew" ('Ein Ganz Gewohnlicher Jude') directed
by Oliver Hirschbiegel of the Berlin Bunker drama "The Downfall", and
starring Ben Becker in a mesmerizing 89 minute screen  monologue, turned out
to be the capstone of the Hamburg film festival.  Based on a recent book
by Swiss author Charles Lewinsky, this heady piece of work adresses
itself to the thorny issue of what it means to be a Jew in contemporary
Germany.  Emanuel Goldfarb, a German journalist of Jewish heritage, but not a
particularly outstanding or active member of the Jewish community, receives a
terribly polite letter asking him to deliver a lecture on the position of
the Jew in German society to a group of German school children, then
agonizes for an entire night over how to respond. "I'm just an ordinary fucking
Jew -- What the hell do they want from me?"
His first reaction is to turn down the invitation on the grounds that
everything there is to say on this subject has already been said many times
over.  Back at his Hamburg apartment he inserts a blank page into his IBM
Selectric typewriter (NOTE: He doesn't use a computer!) and starts his
rejection letter with the friendly greeting: "Lieber (dear) Herr Gephart:"
-- but, upon reflection decides this is far too intimate.  This
guy isn't "dear" (lieb) to me, and I'm certainly not "dear" to him! -- he
muses, and then inserts a new sheet and types the far more formal greeting,
"Sehr Geehrter Herr Gephart" -- "Highly Esteemed Mr. Gephart" ...  As he ponders
and ponders over just how to word his non acceptance of the invitation, he
begins to realize that this is just the tip of an horrendous iceberg, so he
turns on a tape recorder, into which to gather up his thoughts.
For the next eighty minutes the anguished reflections come pouring out
as Goldfarb paces the apartment from room to room, switches the tape on and
off, pulls out old family pictures, inspects a collage of famous Jewish
faces -- Einstein, Freud, Marx and Jesus -- all the while becoming more
and more angry as he, perhaps for the first time in his life, starkly
confronts his own past and German-Jewish identity, with no holds barred.
An incredible condemnation of the politically correct attitudes
of Germans toward their "Jewish brethren" begins to take form, as well as
an agonizing portrait of what it is really like to live in today's Germany as
a Jewish German.  To do this cascade of disturbing confessions justice
would require a presentation of the entire script of the film, while actor
Becker's interpretation of Goldfarb's interior dilemma gives new meaning
to the words "tour-de-force".  There are not many actors around today who can
hold an audience spellbound with what amounts to a ninety minute monologue,
but this is precisely what Ben Becker achieves in this striking film.
Just a sampling of the myriad points addressed:
"The Jews are weighed down by too much tragic history, and there aren't enough of us left in Germany 
to carry the weight" -- "They always ask us what we think about Israel, as if we German Jews were the ones 
who voted Ariel Sharon into office" -- "They always call us "German Jews" --  but never "Jewish Germans"  -- 
to make us feel like we don't belong here and are nothing but long-term visitors" -- "They want to study us like 
specimens of a disappearing species and refuse to let us live like ordinary Germans" -- "I don't want to be 
considered special just because I happen to be of Jewish background.  I want to be an ordinary German and
 an ordinary Jew" -- on and on, until the final shocking conclusion:
"The Germans WILL NEVER FORGIVE the Jews for Auschwitz!"
-- a grimly cynical statement which implies that the Germans hold the Jews responsible for giving 
them such a bad name -- for putting a blot on their history which may never be erased.
Once the tape -- a kind of Jewish Krapp's Last tape --  is finished, three tapes full, to be exact, Goldfarb goes back to his typewriter and transcribes the whole shebang in what, by the dawn's early light, will become, not a brief rejection letter, but a 68 page dissertation to Herr Gephart. Will this succeed in making Gephart see the light? -- that the life of the Jew in denazified Germany has too much ugly baggage to be descibed in words or explained in any comprehensible way -- Hasn't he said to Gephart, "What's the use? These kids will ask me questions I cannot -- and do not -- Want to Answer".
Nevertheless, in a dreamlike tagged-on closing sequence, we see Goldfarb-Becker sitting in a classroom before a sea of innocent young German faces -- eager to hear "the truth" of what it's like to be the spawn of a "race" their own grandparents strove so hard to exterminate in this very land of theirs.  I can't help getting a vision of the prospective victim desperately waving a cross before a drooling Vampire about to drain his blood, as the Vampire says in perfect Yiddish with a grin, "Es vet dir gurnisht helfen" -- "It won't help you one bit -- I'm a Jewish Vampire!"
Beefy, blonde, Ben Becker is an actor with a stature in Germany comparable to that of a De Niro in Hollywood at mid-career, and has been seen as a Nazi officer (in "Gloomy Sunday")  and an ordinary anti-semite in other pictures, among his many powerful screen portrayals.   That this arche-typically Aryan looking actor is here able to wear a Tallis (Jewish prayer shawl) as if born to the cloth, put on the special prayer phylacteries (Tvilen) correctly as if raised by Hassidim, and convincingly recite a Hebrew incantation associated with Yom Kippur -- in short, is able to convince as a Jew when he doesn't look any more Jewish than Charlie Chan -- is the mark of an immense talent and a great actor. Hats off to Ben Becker, a most extraordinary "Ordinary Jew".
One caveat.  The picture, fresh out of the can, was projected in Hamburg without subtitles, which would exclude viewers not perfectly fluent in German.   When the picture is eventually shown with subtitles,whether this will distract from Mr. Becker's deliciously articulated "Hoch" -- and not so hoch --deutsch, is a question of some concern,  for what makes this more than just a movie, but a work of high thespian art, are the verbal and acoustic nuances with which Becker paints and sculpts and molds the screen. Hats are also off to the Hamburg film festival itself for some of the most  transcendental film programming of the year.
Alex, HAMBURG-Schulterblatt, September 30, 2005


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THE FESTIVALS BLOG by Alex Deleon. Watch for festival coverage from the circuit.

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