Jewish Film, 1990-Present

A survey of recent American and International Jewish cinema.

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Perhaps the most impressive Holocaust-related film of the era, other than Schindler's List, had only a tangential relationship to the subject. Errol Morris' documentary Mr. Death (1999) began as a study of Fred A. Leuchter, a designer of equipment for various American states' execution chambers. As the film progresses, Morris steadily reveals more information about Leuchter's extracurricular pursuits as an " expert"  witness for the case of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. Leuchter's expertise in the mechanics of death leads him, in his infinite foolishness and inflated self-regard, to deem himself familiar with the Nazi death camps, and able to declare that no gas was used to kill at Auschwitz. Morris is less interested in the actuality of the Holocaust than in the astounding delusion of its deniers and critics.

Parody

Not all Jewish-themed films were quite so serious-minded. Seeking inspiration in the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, The Hebrew Hammer (2003), directed by Jonathan Kesselman, parodied Shaft, Superfly, and the other icons of the genre, with a Jewish twist. Adam Goldberg starred as Mordechai Jefferson Carver, a Semitic private eye dedicated to saving Hanukkah from the clutches of an evil Santa Claus hell-bent on eliminating his holiday's chief rivals to the wintertime throne.

Clever conceit aside, most of the film's jokes are fairly stale, like the badass Jewish Justice League honcho played by Peter Coyote being named Bloomenbergensteinenthal. Nonetheless, the sight of Goldberg in his tough-Jew costume, sidecurls and all, is good for a few minutes of chuckles, at least.

Religious Life

Religious life in the Jewish community became a subject of interest for filmmakers in the 1990s as well. Two mainstream American films about Hasidism were released--Sidney Lumet's A Stranger Among Us (1992) and Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies (1998). The former, starring Melanie Griffith as a police officer who grows entangled with the Hasidic community of Brooklyn during an investigation, was tragically misconceived, while the latter, stronger on the details, was still unable to penetrate the ultra-Orthodox world with much success.

Documentaries like Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky's A Life Apart: Hasidim in America (1997) and Trembling Before G-d (Sandi Simcha Dubowski, 2001) were more insightful, with Dubowski's film about homosexuality in the Orthodox world, Hasidic and otherwise, sparking an impassioned debate on the heretofore taboo subject.

Comedy and Satire

Judaism in its less overtly religious forms made appearances in a large number of mainstream films, from John Goodman's Walter ("I don't roll on Shabbos, Dude") in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998), to the shofar-toking stoners in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004), to the 1980's Jewish summer-campers and counselors of David Wain's Wet Hot American Summer (2001).

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Saul Austerlitz

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