The “Jew Süss controversy
No other film in this year’s Berlianle was met with the same kind of exaggerated hostility that has made, and broken, many films in past festivals as Oskar Roehler’s German entry “Jew Süss: Rise and Fall.
The moment the end credits started rolling, a loud chorus of booing echoed from different corners of the Berlinale Palast. When the film’s cast entered the intimidating press conference room at the Grant Hyatt, it was clear that “Jew Süss was this year’s designated scandale de festival.
Based on a true story, Roehler’s follow-up to 2006’s equally controversial “The Elementary Particles charts the making of “Jew Süss, the Nazis’ most infamous propaganda film and the most overtly anti-Semitic film in the history of cinema, and the impact it had on both the German public and the lives of its makers.
Tobias Moretti is Ferdinand Marian, the star of the film who, as depicted by Roehler, was coerced into participating in the project by the Reich’s propaganda engineer Joseph Goebbels, performed with exhilarating swagger by Germany’s best known actor, Moritz Bleibtreu (“Run Lola Run, “The Baader Meinhof Comple ). The film traces the rise of Marian and his overnight transformation into Germany’s biggest new star, the moral abyss he subsequently falls into as the film’s popularity sweeps over the nation, and his eventual downfall.
Roehler takes poetic license in twisting numerous facts to enhance the drama – Marian’s wife was not half Jewish and thus, didn’t die in concentration camps; his career did continue to prosper after “Jew Süss, starring in eight more films afterwards.
Roehler’s ill-calculated strategy ultimately backfires for a number of reasons.
Roehler’s characters are rendered as one-dimensional caricatures impossible to empathize with. Everything about Roehler’s characterization is exaggerated; from Marian’s mannerisms to his Faustian story arc that’s impossible to digest and his overdramatic fall.
Most critics accused Roehler of portraying Marian as a victim of the Nazi regime; of obscuring the complicity of a criminal whose decisions cannot be justified.
My problem with “Jew Süss has less to do with the intention of Roehler’s approach or the distortion of facts than with the resulting effect. By portraying all Nazis as mindless monsters with no will, Roehler has created a manipulative, overblown picture not widely different from the propaganda film it lambasts.
Visions of Muslim lives
A central focus of this year’s Berlin Film Fest was troubled Muslims facing various ordeals: modernity, clash between western culture and Islamic faith and changing values and traditions. “Honey, the Turkish Golden Bear winner, is informed by strong, Sufi-like spirituality that subtly materializes in the last part of the film.
Two other films in competition tackled these themes more explicitly: Burhan Qurbani’s directorial debut “Shahada and Jasmila Zbanic’s “On the Path.
The artistic gulf between the two is enormous; the first is a languid, superficial multi-character melodrama aptly dubbed as “‘Crash for Islam; the second is a superbly crafted drama executed with remarkable panache by a former Golden Bear winner Zbanic (“Grbavica, 2006). And for my money, “On the Path, which went home empty-handed, was a more deserving winner of Berlinale’s top honor than “Honey.
An episodic film structured in five chapters, each representing the rituals of Hajj (the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) – which has no dramatic purpose whatsoever – “Shahada centers on three Muslim characters, each having their faith tested in demanding circumstances.
The first is Maryam (Maryam Zaree), German-born daughter of a moderate, benevolent Turkish Imam, who transforms from an insubordinate party girl to a religious fanatic after enduring a brutal abortion. The second is Sammi (Jeremias Acheampong), a devout Senegalese dishwasher struggling to fight his attraction to German co-worker Daniel (Sergej Moya). The third is Ismail (Carlo Ljubek), a guilt-ridden Turkish cop who finds himself drawn to Leyla (Marija Skarici), an illegal immigrant he accidently shot when she was pregnant and caused her to lose her baby.
Each of the three stories stroll in a predictable route and unlike Zbanic, Qurbani adds nothing to his awfully conventional narratives, neither emotionally or visually. The fundamental premise of the film – Muslims trying to adjust their faith to their modern lifestyles – is difficult to translate in a context of a melodrama. Perhaps that’s why none of the characters comes across as believable; the stories are imbued by an artificial stratum that prevents the audiences from investing their emotions in the characters.
Most problematic of all though is the illusory reconciliation Qurbani forges between his characters’ faith and their dilemmas, opting to take the lazy, easy route of “Everyone decides how to live his faith.
At the heart of “Shahada is a palpable battle between a Muslim cruel deity and a forgiving one. With secular tendencies thrown into the mix, the conclusion of “Shahada hence feels convoluted and spurious, unsure of which vision of Islam it submits to.
Zbanic’s “On the Path is the polar opposite; a film with clear vision from start to finish and a resolute target it does not deviate from.
Set in present-day Bosnia, Zbanic chronicles the disintegrating relationship of liberal air-stewardess Luna (Zrinka Cvitesic) and her boyfriend Amar (Leon Lucev), war veteran, who gradually turns to conservative wahhabism after he’s fired from his job for drinking.
As Amar’s demands increases, Luna adheres closer to the life path she has chosen to take.
I was ready to dismiss “On the Path based on what sounded to me like a tired premise. And although Zbanic relies on a classical narrative form with a foreseeable finale, the beautifully-lensed “On the Path is anything but standard. This is a deeply honest, genuine story partly exploring the rise of wahhabism in post-war Bosnia, its roots and the country’s rapidly changing culture climate.
Zbanic pits liberal Islam against the strict wahhabism that thousands of Bosnians found a refuge in following the war. Zbanic clearly champions the former, and she doesn’t conceal her intentions for a second. But she treats both factions with even-handedness and respect, never succumbing to stereotyping and providing persuasive motives for the lifestyles her two protagonists choose to adopt.
Some Arab critics I met complained from the absence of moderate characters in the film. I initially wondered about the same thing, but the fact is, the structure of the story does not have a room for moderate characters that would’ve been forced on the narrative if introduced; Zbanic’s decision is thoroughly valid within the context of the story.
In the age of blunt religious sermons like “El Farah (The Wedding), “On the Path feels like a breath of fresh air; a film our Arab world desperately needs. Above all though, as a Syrian friend put it, it’s a film that Bosnia greatly needs.