Category Archives: Documentary

The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018), directed by Matthew Shoychet

Every summer, the Jewish people observe three weeks of mourning. The three weeks begin from the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz until the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, during which time traditional Jews commemorate and think about the destruction of the First and Second Temples and why those catastrophes occurred. This time period in the yearly Hebrew calendar is devoted to remembering those past calamities and those holy souls whose lives ended prematurely in the cauldrons of anti-Semitic violence. The Accountant of Auschwitz raises the important question of how long we should remember these kinds of events.

Oskar Groning was one of the last living members of the SS to be implicated in Nazi crimes against humanity. He was known as the “Accountant of Auschwitz.” In 2005, he appeared in a BBC documentary about the Holocaust. On that program he spoke matter-of-factly about his duties as a member of the SS who served at Auschwitz.

His responsibilities at the concentration camp included counting and sorting the money taken from prisoners and being in charge of the personal property of arriving prisoners. On a few occasions, he witnessed the procedures of mass killing in the camp and the indiscriminate killing of babies. He admitted to seeing an SS soldier grab a crying baby by the legs and smashing its head against the iron side of a truck until the baby was silent.

Groning was discomforted by such viciousness; but, after a while, such horrific actions became routine to him, especially when his superiors reminded him of the pernicious influence of the Jews who were considered enemies of the German people.

The television program on which he appeared brought him to the attention of the German judiciary, who decided to charge him with the killing of 300,000 Jews. His trial in 2015, when he was 94 years old, made worldwide headlines.

There was much controversy about his trial. One segment of the population felt that he was a witness, and, therefore, complicit in the crimes. Another segment thought it was pointless to target a frail man in the twilight of his life.

Interestingly, Groning decided to go public on television with his story because he was incensed by Holocaust deniers who claimed the Holocaust never happened. Groning was there at Auschwitz and he felt obligated to speak the truth, in spite of incriminating himself.

On July 15, 2015, he was found guilty of being an accessory to the crime of murder of 3000,000 Jews. Ironically, he died before serving one day in prison.

Survivors who testified at the trial felt it was important for the world to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. There should be no statute of limitations when it involves prosecuting someone for murder. One survivor reflected on the historical significance of keeping memories alive: “Without history, there is no memory. Without memory, there is no future if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: “We are what we remember.” He suggests that three basic questions of life relate to memory: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These questions compel us to revisit the past in order to chart a future life path. It involves using our individual and collective memories to shape our personal and group identities. Our collective memory of the Holocaust reminds us of the unpredictability of life and the evil of which men are capable. Accepting that reality prepares us better to deal with life as we travel through it.

As survivors pass away, it becomes even more important to conserve the legacy of memories that they leave us. The Accountant of Auschwitz reminds us that bringing Oskar Groning to trial was important because it means we never totally forget the past.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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Apollo 11 (2019), directed by Todd Douglas Miller

To achieve any lofty goal requires great attention to detail. When I first became a principal, the school of which I was the head was in survival mode. It barely had the funds for payroll and enrollment was low. It was the first Jewish day high school in the city and did not have much community support. My job in part was to keep it afloat and help it grow. Thank God, the school grew numerically and financially and fulfilled our dreams.

There was another level of excellence that the school experienced. To compete with an array of exemplary private high schools, we had to go through an accreditation process. All the details of the school’s operation were scrutinized. Visiting members of the accreditation committee looked at our mission statement, our course descriptions, our teacher profiles, our student acceptance rate into college, and sundry other items.

After a thorough examination, we became accredited by our regional accreditation agency, which helped with our recruitment of new students. The overall results were very good, and we accomplished our goal because we buttressed all of our observations and reports with details that far exceeded what was required.

It is this kind of attention to detail that characterized the work of those laboring on the “man on the moon” project in 1969, which enabled the United States to successfully place a man on the moon. This event is celebrated in the fascinating documentary Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 tells the story of NASA’s historic lunar landing mission. Produced from newly discovered film footage, it depicts the days leading up to the launch, the launch itself, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in which he declared that, by placing one small step on the moon, he was making a giant leap for mankind. The movie concludes with the return of the lunar module to earth’s atmosphere, and its landing in the ocean.

The central characters are the three astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. But the supporting players at Mission Control also play a key role in the achievement. These employees provided the detailed information necessary for the astronauts to be successful.

The film devotes equal time to them sitting behind their computer monitors, analyzing real-time data, and relaying radio transmissions. The detail is mind-boggling. In order for the lunar module to reach the moon, it requires 7.6 million pounds of thrust to leave the earth and it has to attain a speed of 23,000 mph to break free of the orbit around the earth. These numbers are impossible to comprehend.

This commitment to an overall goal and to the details required to achieve it evoke comparisons to Judaism’s approach to leading a holy life. For example, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld discusses the admonition “you shall be holy” that appears in the Bible. Wolkenfeld remarks: “It is a brief statement that can fit on a billboard, that can even fit on a bumper-sticker.” That succinct line is the mission statement of the Jewish people.

But what does it mean? The Sages tell us that to be holy requires observance of a whole host of commandments that touch every aspect of human life: determining what we can eat, how we pray, performing an array of rituals related to the Jewish holidays, and carefully evaluating how to interact with our fellow man. In all, there are 613 commandments, not just ten. God is truly in the details of how we lead our lives.

Apollo 11 reminds us that to achieve a worthy goal requires more than just sincere resolve. Rather, it involves a commitment to details and using them to support a worthy goal, bringing it from idea to reality.

 

Far From the Tree (2018), directed by Rachel Dretzin

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an aphorism often quoted to praise the accomplishments of a child whose exemplary behavior or achievements mirror the accomplishments of the parent. In Rachel Dretzin’s documentary, Far From the Tree, inspired by Andrew Solomon’s best-selling book, she profiles several families in which the children do not at all mirror the situation of their parents.

The first subject is a man who disappointed his parents when he came out as gay. His mother’s initial response: “Now I will never have any grandchildren.”

The second subject is Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome. Here the mother clearly loves him, but she recognizes the reality that intellectually he will always have severe limitations. Jason is obsessed with the character of Elsa in the movie Frozen. He even wants to travel to Norway in spite of his knowledge that Elsa does not really exist.

The third case involves an autistic teenager, who can only speak with the aid of a computer. The mother wonders whether she did anything during her pregnancy that brought about this disability.

Fourth is the story of Loini, who is a dwarf. She laments the fact that she cannot drive a car because her family cannot afford to buy a specially equipped car that would enable her to drive. Her life takes on excitement when she attends a Little People of America convention where she meets other people her size and comes out of her emotional shell.

Fifth is the case of 16-year old Trevor, who, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly slit the throat of an 8-year old boy and was given a life sentence in prison. Here we see normal parents raising their son in a conventional, loving way yet the son commits a horrific crime. The psychotherapist tells them their son is “broken,” and the parents can do nothing about it.

In each narrative, parents are compelled to deal with the reality that the expectations they had for their children will never be fulfilled. The question then becomes how should a parent relate to that child. The film suggests that in the face of situations that cannot be easily remedied, parents need to be accepting, tolerant, and loving.

That response to a painful reality is echoed in Judaic sources. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) speaks of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and notes that, in the midst of this catastrophe, God does not totally abandon the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, a Jewish educator, writes: “God loves His children even in the midst of unbearable destruction. It is this knowledge that God will never forsake us that gives us the strength to endure all the trials and tribulations of life. God has unconditional love for his children.”

The model for how a parent should treat a child that does not meet his expectations is God Himself. Rabbi Safran observes: “God has shows us the way to respond to a child that does not fulfill our hopes and dreams.  It is love and acceptance.”  Even when a child falls very far from the parental tree, you must still love him, just as God loves us, no matter what our state of being.

In Far From the Tree, there are children who ideologically are distant from their parents, there are children who physically are very different from their parents, and there are children who are intellectually different from their parents. But in all these cases, there still exists the enduring bond of a parent to a child, which transcends the moment, which overcomes the present crisis and enables parents to continue to love and cherish their children in spite of any unpleasant and challenging reality. Parental love may not solve the problem, but it enables the relationship to continue and, from the aspect of eternity, good things may still come.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Score (2016), directed by Matt Schrader

My granddaughter, Shoshi, is a very talented pianist. Not only does she play well, she also composes some of her own compositions. Whenever I am in the States and visiting Shoshi and the rest of her family, I ask her to play some of her own melodies. Hearing them is a pleasure and the music relaxes me. Life without music seems sterile; with music, it is vibrant.

Music occupies a very special place in cinema. Sometimes it is critically important because it underscores major themes in the film you are watching. It is the soul of the movie, part of the creative vision of the director and actors who want to convey the meaning of a film to those who see it. It is not just filler; rather it is essential to the creative film experience.

One of my first exposures to the power of music in the cinema was watching Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy Award winning film about racing. It begins with a scene of men running along the English beach preparing for the 1924 Olympics. The camera depicts in slow-motion the men running; the music in the background, composed by Vangelis, is transcendent and uplifting.

Score is a documentary that describes the history of motion picture scoring. It begins with a discussion of silent films. In truth, they were not really silent because an organist often played during the film to highlight and punctuate the action on the screen. The game-changer in movie soundtrack history was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933. The music transformed a standard special-effects monster movie into a total cinematic experience.

After this brief historical introduction, the film explores the creative processes of a number of composers whose work in films helped make the films memorable. They include such musical luminaries as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Ennio Morricone.

Some soundtracks still remain with us after many years. They include such classics as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and Titanic. Just listening to the music conjures up images and emotions from the past.

What is fascinating is the technology and new musical genres that influence contemporary soundtracks. Innovation in sound is a hallmark of famous iconoclastic films. The composer does not limit himself to traditional orchestral instruments. Nature sounds and instruments of primitive cultures often substitute for conventional background music to accentuate what is happening on the screen.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the interplay of music, life, and emotion. When the Jewish nation crosses the Red Sea, the people spontaneously break out in song. King David, the author of Psalms, is known in the Bible as the “sweet singer of Israel.” The priests sang in the Temple every day. Prayers are often sung, not merely recited.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it the shorthand of emotion. Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

Score reminds us that dialogue in movies can take us only so far. The soundtrack, which is the last creative part of the film to be added, is crucial to the overall affect the film has on the viewer. So it is in Judaism. What enables Jewish tradition to pass from generation to generation are not simply the dry words of the Bible and Talmud, but rather the spirit, the music, through which it is transmitted. Song represents the soul within and the soul lives beyond the present.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Three Identical Strangers (2018), directed by Tim Wardie

As a school principal for many years, a number of adopted children have attended my school. At first I did not know they were adopted and simply assumed they were the natural progeny of their parents. Some of the kids even looked like their parents, and I regarded their parents as their true biological parents.

Later, when I became aware that these children were adopted, I occasionally saw a disconnect between parents and children, and it made me think about the age-old discussion of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important in a child’s development?

Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that considers the problem from a unique perspective. The true story concerns identical triplets, Bobby, Eddy, and David, born in 1961, who were separated at birth and adopted by three different families. Each remains oblivious of the other until they meet 19 years later as adults. They are outwardly carbon copies of one another and they bond quickly as brothers.

The triplets reunited in 1980 as a result of a chance encounter at college where one brother was confused with another because they looked alike. The discovery led to a viral response by the media, which led to numerous appearances on TV. Their celebrity grew, and at first they basked in the attention they were getting. As time passed, the individuality of each brother asserted itself, and we see that emotionally they were very different.

Serendipitously, it was discovered that their separation at birth from a single mother, and their subsequent placement in homes with different economic circumstances – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one upper-class – was the result of a psychiatric experiment conducted by Dr. Peter Neubauer who was investigating whether nurture or nature was the determining factor in who a child turned out to be.

The brothers felt like rats used in an experiment. They understood that it may have been difficult for a couple to adopt three babies at once, but they were disturbed that no one at the adoption agency told the adopting parents that their one child was one of triplets.

Dr. Neubauer’s research came to a close when he died, and the study was abandoned. The answer to this age-old question of nature vs. nurture was not resolved, especially when one of the brothers, Eddy, committed suicide in 1995.

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a psychologist specializing in ADHD and learning disabilities, asks: “Are we in charge of our destinies? Are we shaped by our surroundings? Or are we a product of our genetic makeup? “ In truth, our actions are determined by a combination of our genes and our environment. Bobby, Eddy, and David clearly were genetically similar, but the Torah tells us that we all are created “in the image of God.” The corollary: every individual is unique. Outward likeness does not mean that the inner soul, the inner emotional make-up, of a person is the same.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that we are more than our DNA: “Our early character is determined partly by DNA – the genetic heritage of our parents and theirs – partly by our home and upbringing, partly by our friends, and partly by the surrounding culture. We are not born free. We have to work hard to achieve freedom.”

Sacks indicates that we can exercise our free will no matter our genetic or cultural background. Whether our future is determined by our genes or by the way we are educated is a question that cannot be answered. What is evident that both influence our destinies, and we still have free will to choose what direction in life we will take. We may possess biological tendencies to move in one direction, but we have the ability to make midcourse corrections that will enable us to have fulfilling lives.

Three Identical Strangers raises the question of how our future as adults is determined. The Jewish approach is to take what we are given, the God-given attributes with which God blesses us, and use them for good. Only by exercising our free will do we fulfill our cosmic destinies.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The White Helmets (2016), directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

For the last several years, I have seen in the media a plethora of stories about the Syrian Civil War. Exactly who is fighting who and for what reasons is sometimes unclear to me. So I looked forward to viewing The White Helmets, an award-winning documentary about this cadre of volunteers, all of whom wear white helmets. Their mission: to rescue people caught in the crossfire of the conflict in Syria. I hoped the film would give me a better understanding of this ongoing conflict and it did.

The film is composed of raw footage of the bombings of populated areas, wounded adults and children, the rescue training of the volunteers, depictions of some of their actual rescue efforts, and interviews with some of its members, who are mission-driven to save lives.

The White Helmet organization began in 2014 to labor in the fields of medical evacuation, urban search and rescue, evacuation of civilians from dangerous locations, and general service delivery of life essentials. As of April 2018, the White Helmets claim to have saved 114,000 lives, and in the process 201 White Helmets have died. They claim not to be affiliated with any particular cause in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, they are targets of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, both of which see them as aligned with the terrorist opposition to Assad’s Syrian government.

Interestingly, in July of 2018, Israel opened the Golan Hieghts border to permit a UN rescue team to evacuate 422 people, 98 While Helmet members and their families, to Jordan because their lives were in danger. A Syrian government spokesman condemned the rescue as a “criminal operation” that supported a terrorist entity.

Observing the rescue work that the White Helmets do, it is hard to imagine the group is a terrorist entity. Interviews with three of the volunteers demonstrate their passionate desire to save lives as their sole motivation.

Similar motivations are expressed by Hatzalah, a Jewish volunteer rescue organization in America and Israel. No matter whether thay are professionals or day laborers, they drop what they are doing and travel at a moment’s notice to save a life. One Hatzaloh member observes: “We help our neighbors, friends, relatives, and complete strangers. We get their fast so that we can minimize the trauma and suffering of the patient. That is our job and that is why I love it. I get to help make the community I live in a better and safer place.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) states: “Whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Aaron Kirschenbaum, Law Professor at Tel Aviv University, traces the origin of this Talmudic statement to Leviticus (19:16), which states: ”thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The takeaway is that every human being has an obligation to help someone in distress. Maimonides in his Code of Jewish Law provides some specific guidelines. Most important, we must be able to save another. Stepping into a dangerous situation without the proper training can lead to more harm both to the victims of terror and the rescuers themselves. Moreover, a number of ancillary considerations come into play in rescue efforts, such as geographic proximity, mental awareness, creative thinking, and physical disposition.

The White Helmets reminds us not only of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but also of the many everyday heroes who desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of innocents. Their altruistic spirit and their hope for a better future in the face of present adversity should be an inspiration to all of us.

Watch “The White Helmets” on Netflix.

Notes on Blindness (2016), directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

notes on blindnessA couple of years ago, I visited the Museum of the Blind in Holon, Israel. It was an immersive visit in a totally dark environment led by a blind guide who wants to give visitors a sense of what it is to be blind and what accommodations a blind person has to make to lead a relatively normal life. I left the museum extremely grateful for the gift of sight.

Notes on Blindness took that grateful feeling and made it deeper. The film is a true record of what happened to John Hull (1935-2015), a writer, theologian, and university professor in England, who totally lost his sight in 1983 after a number of operations on his failing eyes. The script of the film contains the exact words of his audio diary, which he kept to document his coming to terms with his blindness. They eventually became the basis for Hull’s book, Touching the Rock, and later the movie, Notes on Blindness.

Notes on Blindness is a film in a category of its own. Between segments of the film, the screen goes totally black for several seconds. Even as the story is told, much of it appears in dim lighting. Furthermore, the images are often out of focus, making it challenging for the viewer. Moreover, many of the scenes are shot with only parts of a person in focus. There are images of parts of faces, feet walking, and hands moving, as if to suggest impaired vision. As Hull narrates, we are given entrance to his dreams, his memory, and his imagination; and it is a fascinating journey.

As he comes to accept his blindness, he goes through various psychological stages. A particularly difficult time occurs when he returns to his native Australia to visit his aging parents. He remembers little of his visual life there and returns to England depressed.

It is at his home in England that his spirits are lifted. He emerges from “the shadowland of passivity” to a world with which he is familiar. He caresses his old furniture. He is pleased to find his desk and chair in their proper places, and he is happy to find his tape recorder in working condition.

What is amazing is the devotion of his wife who is by his side through all his adversity. We learn later that Hull and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, a profound testimony to their love and devotion to one another. Hull writes about her: “What I remember about you most vividly in those years was your amazing practicality. You never expressed regrets. You just got on with the next thing, step by step. The way you did that, I always thought was incredible.”

Hull does arrive at some kind of epiphany. He ultimately sees his blindness as a gift from God. It is not a gift he wants either for himself or his children; but now that he acknowledges this divine gift, he realizes that to complain about it is fruitless. What he must do is to decide how he will use this gift in a creative way for the rest of his days.

This perspective on life echoes the sentiment expressed in Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton, one of the great English poets, wrote this masterpiece when he was blind and coming to terms with his own personal affliction. One of my Torah teachers, in fact, said that this passage was a comfort to him when his father lost his sight. The essential message: we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can decide how we respond to adversity. That is the key to living a meaningful life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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