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Jewish filmmaker gets rock-star reception in China

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 8 (JTA) — Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has recently covered a lot of territory.

During the last week in October, the Chinese government and film industry feted the winner of five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day.”

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18 minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material for it.

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits,” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as the press and public mobbed him as if he were a rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his news conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead.” That’s “as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Los Angeles will also host the world premiere of “One Day in September.” The event is slated for Jan. 18, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

The film is a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

Cohn is a third-generation Swiss citizen and a resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.

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