Thursday, November 29, 2001

The 12th annual renewal of the Washington Jewish Film Festival begins this evening, offering 11 days of programs devoted to Jewish history, religion and culture.
The Cecile Goldman Theater of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center hosts most of the showings. The number of features is down compared to last year 39 instead of 45 but the number of countries represented has increased substantially, from 13 to 22, so it’s possible that the range of impressions has been enhanced.
Last year’s festival provided an advance look at one of the best imports of 2001, the Czech comedy-drama about an admirable feat of deception in the closing months of World War II, “Divided We Fall.” The previous year had Aviva Kempner’s endearing “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” as a rallying point.
The still unreleased but boldly preposterous “Conversation With the Beast,” in which Armin Mueller-Stahl impersonates a fancifully aged, secluded, ruminative and still despotic Adolf Hitler, gave a memorable satiric twist to an earlier collection.
It remains to be seen if there’s anything as potent in the latest selections, which begin on a potentially provocative note with an evocation of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s triumph, “Gripsholm,” a German import derived from a story by the left-wing journalist and lyricist Kurt Tucholsky.
The author himself is observed during a summer vacation in Sweden in 1932. A quarrel with a close friend, a daredevil pilot who perceives little or no danger in a Nazi regime, leaves the Tucholsky character with a pair of party girls on his hands, at the very least a stimulating trade-off.
One is a cabaret headliner whose songs bear the writer’s stamp.
The closing attraction, “Once We Grow Up,” is a French domestic comedy that tends to buckle under the strain of too much facile topicality and compulsive undermining of family and amorous relationships.
Nevertheless, the director, Renaud Cohen, may be an emerging virtuoso at screwball farce.
He packs the screen with more dysfunctional and untrustworthy characters than you may want to humor on first acquaintance, but he’s also playful and quick-moving and takes you into some quarters of Paris that are rarely visited.
The documentaries include chronicles of several show-business figures: Bette Midler; the song-and-dance Burstein Family; and the blacklisted Hollywood couple Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergard, portrayed by Jeff Goldblum and Greta Scacchi at a low point in the early 1950s. The Biberman biopic, “One of the Hollywood Ten,” is a British production.
The subject of the Holocaust returns in “The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria” and “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.”
The former should prove a useful supplement to those attracted by recent books about the incongruous combination of Nazi collaboration and resistance to Jewish expulsion and extermination that distinguished the regime in Bulgaria.
The vintage attraction is a 1937 Polish production in Yiddish, “The Vow,” on loan from the Jewish film archives at Brandeis University. Director Henryk Szabo is often resourceful despite an obviously spare budget.
He uses a flamboyant trio of images lightning, a flaming tree and a theatrical approximation of heavenly illumination to conjure up the prophet Elijah, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible to the characters as he eavesdrops and salvages a wedding between young people whose fathers hoped for such a match before the children were born.
The Washington event was a pioneering showcase a dozen years ago. A national circuit of Jewish film festivals has since developed, active in more than 50 cities.
The second annual conference of festival organizers from around the country also will be held in Washington this weekend.

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