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Arts & Culture It’s Not Just ‘the Pianist’ — Other Jewish Films View for Oscars

March 17, 2003
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“The Pianist,” the film based on a memoir by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, has garnered a lot of attention in the run-up to this year’s Academy awards.

But the Roman Polanski-directed film, nominated for seven Oscars, is not the only Jewish-themed film up for an Oscar when the awards are handed out March 23.

“Nowhere in Africa” is nominated for best foreign language film, and “Prisoner in Paradise” received a nomination in the documentary feature category.

“Nowhere in Africa” is a stunningly visual and dramatic film, which explores the trials and triumphs of a German Jewish family forced to flee their native land in the 1930s, between Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of World War II.

The theme, lacking the sheer life-and-death tension and horror of the Holocaust itself, has been largely neglected by moviemakers. It is treated with great sensitivity in this German picture.

It is 1938, and the thoroughly assimilated Redlich family, consisting of Walter, an attorney, his pampered wife, Jettel, and their 10-year old daughter Regina, finally realizes that it’s time to leave the country, despite the assurances of grandfather Max that the Nazis will be booted out in one or two years.

Their unlikely destination is Kenya, where a friend has secured a job for the urbane Walter as caretaker on a remote, drought-stricken farm. He tries to make the best of it, while Jettel, completely unprepared for the rigors and spartan conditions of their new life, yearns for a return to Germany.

Only daughter Regina, a shy but curious little girl, is fascinated by the new environment and quickly forms a friendship with the native cook Owuor.

“Nowhere in Africa” is based on the autobiographical novel of the same title by German-Jewish journalist Stefanie Zweig, drawing on her childhood experiences with her refugee family in Kenya.

The film swept top honors at last year’s German academy awards and was recognized at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. It is opening in March and April in cities throughout the United States.

“Kurt Gerron needed a stage or film set as much as he needed breath,” notes one Holocaust survivor in “Prisoner of Paradise.”

The survivor’s observation helps to explain both the triumphs and the inglorious end of Gerron, who was among the talented Jewish artists who made Berlin the liveliest city in Europe in the l920s and early 1930s.

As an actor, director and cabaret star, the heavyset Gerron made more than 70 movies, introduced “Mack the Knife” as the original Tiger Brown in “The Threepenny Opera” and played the impresario-magician in the “Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings.

His German career came to an abrupt end on April 1, 1933, when all “non-Aryans” were evicted from the set of a film he was directing. He emigrated to Holland and established himself as the director of the Dutch Municipal Theater and later of a Jewish theater.

He was offered a chance to come to Hollywood, but Gerron, a man of considerable naivete and vanity, turned down the invitation because he wasn’t offered a first-class ticket for the voyage to America.

For Gerron, to be back on a movie set was a chance to live again and he threw himself into his work.

The ludicrous film, titled “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City,” was completed in September 1944, was never shown, and only fragments survive. For his services, Gerron was put on the final transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and killed on his arrival.

PBS is slated to air the film in late April.

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