LONDON, April 24 (JTA) – For British filmmaker Ben Hopkins, “cinema is a place to experience something new and different.”
With his feature film debut, “Simon Magus,” the young writer-director has succeeded in creating something new and different – a movie that he describes as “a Yiddish spaghetti Western.”
It’s as accurate a description as any of a film that takes place in a Polish shtetl sometime in the 19th century but centers on the classic Western film conflict of who profits from a new railroad.
Recognizing that his town will die if the train bypasses it, a Jewish student, Dovid Bendel, asks the local squire for land to build a railroad station.
Unfortunately, a local Christian businessman has the same idea.
The entrepreneur recruits a Jewish outcast – Simon (Noah Taylor, the teen-aged David Helfgott in “Shine” and the band manager in “Almost Famous”) – in a plot to discredit the Jews and get the land.
“The strand about two guys fighting over land and future prosperity is from a kind of Western,” said Hopkins, 32.
“It’s a simple story and a simple kind of message, but it’s complex in the way it’s told,” said Bob Aaronson, whose Fireworks Pictures is distributing the film in the United States.
It has also been well-received.
“Simon Magus” was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year and earned good reviews from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and is now making the art house and festival circuit in North America.
The film is full of historical ironies, not least among them that a Jew is so eager for a railroad through his Polish town, when a generation or two later, those same railroads will carry millions of Jews to their deaths.
Another surprise is that the film’s sympathetic and complex portrayal of shtetl Jews comes from a filmmaker who is not Jewish.
In fact, when Hopkins started working on the script in 1995, the main characters were not Jewish.
He was struggling with the script when a friend suggested that he read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” he said.
“Singer was one of my Dad’s favorite writers, so his books were always around the house, but I never got around to reading them,” Hopkins told JTA.
“Gimpel” proved to be a catalyst, and the movie’s character of Simon developed from the Singer book.
Hopkins, an Oxford graduate with a degree in German and Italian, began researching the period, reading more Singer and Theo Richmond’s nonfiction book “Konin: A Quest,” the story of a man’s search for his parents’ Polish shtetl.
Hopkins also traveled to Poland.
“He let himself be led by the story. He allowed the film to cloak itself in this Jewish theme,” said Judy Ironside, director of the Brighton Jewish Film Festival, where Simon Magus was screened last year.
She said festival-goers had received the movie well, even though Hopkins is not Jewish.
“There’s something very complimentary about a non-Jew choosing to focus on Jewish issues,” she said.
And although the film is “very dark in its Jewishness, it’s not anti-Semitic at all,” she added.
Once it was clear in his mind that many of his main characters were Jews, Hopkins decided not to make a typical shtetl movie.
“Shtetl films – “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Yentl” – are generally fairly schmaltzy,” Hopkins said.
“I don’t think ‘Simon Magus’ has that kind of depiction. I wanted to show that it was hard just to be alive,” he said.
“His take on the Jewish experience is less romantic,” said Aaronson, the film distributor.
“It does have romance – more than one. He is at heart a romantic. But it is an intellectual film,” Aaronson said.
Among the film’s surprises is the liberal, humane local aristocrat, who is willing to consider Dovid’s request if the Jewish student will read German poetry in addition to Talmud.
Hopkins said the character, played by Rutger Hauer, grew out of his reading.
“In Konin, a local squire invites Jews onto his land during a festival – I think I’m not making this up – and that put the character of the benevolent local landlord in my mind,” Hopkins said.
A darker surprise comes in the form of the Devil, who visits Simon regularly during the film, torturing him and exhorting him to do evil.
Simon struggles against the sinister figure, played by Ian Holm, and the outcome is in doubt until the very end of the film.