Jewish Film, 1990-Present

A survey of recent American and International Jewish cinema.

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The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in Jewish content onscreen, in the United States and around the world. In part, this is due to the American embrace of ethnically oriented subject matter, especially among independent filmmakers. It also has to do with the still-reverberating repercussions of the downfall of the classical Hollywood studio system, and its longstanding prejudice against Jewish content in its films. The influence of Woody Allen, and the impact of the ever-growing number of Jewish film festivals, cannot be overstated either. The combination of these factors has created a burgeoning industry of explicitly Jewish films, and a renewed presence of Jewish content and characters in otherwise mainstream material. 

Holocaust Films

The Holocaust became an essential cinematic topic in the 1990s, with the remarkable critical acclaim for Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List (1993) translating into a spate of new Holocaust films, both documentary and fictional.

contemporary jewish filmSome were equally well-regarded, such as Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002), Lajos Koltai's Fateless (2006), the Oscar-winning documentaries The Long Way Home (1997) and The Last Days (1998), some were travesties, such as Robin Williams' disastrous Jakob the Liar (1999), and some, like Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1998), were disputed properties, attracting huzzahs and catcalls in equal measure.

After a long period of relative silence about the Holocaust, broken only by its occasional treatment in films like The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1964) and Sophie's Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982), the 1990s saw the dam burst, with a seemingly endless procession of films on the subject.

In particular, there was an interest in telling some of the myriad stories of the Jewish experience in the war years, with most films hewing closely to the careful realism of Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa (1990), Jan Hrebejk's Divided We Fall (2001), and The Pianist.

If the documentaries especially were a mite predictable, and their seemingly annual walk to the Oscar podium a matter having more to do with their subject than their quality, there was genuine hope to be found in the newfound interest of filmmakers to wrestle with the impossible.

There were also some films, like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah follow-up, Sobibor (2001), and Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer's Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002), that made for engrossing, affecting watching. Holocaust iconography even found its way into ostensibly non-affiliated films, like Polanski's Oliver Twist (2005), or the self-hating Jewish skinhead of Henry Bean's The Believer (2001).

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.