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Film Review: Denver Jewish Film Festival showcases comedies and tragedies

This is a still image from the film Farewell, Mr. Haffmann, featuring  Daniel Auteuil (left) as Haffmann and Gilles Lellouche as Mercier in a workshop sitting at a desk with tools and a lamp on.
Courtesy of JCC Mizel Arts and Culture Center
Daniel Auteuil (left) as Haffmann and Gilles Lellouche as Mercier in the film 'Farewell, Mr. Haffmann,' which is one of the featured films playing at the 27th Annual Denver Jewish Film Festival.

'Berenshtein' by Israeli filmmaker Roman Shumunov, tells the story about Leonid Berenshtein, an actual person, who had a horrifying and heroic life during World War II. When the filmmakers found him, Berenshtein was 95 years old and living in obscurity in Israel. Berenshtein was a soldier in the Soviet army fighting the Nazis when his unit was destroyed. He eventually found his way to a group of partisans living in the forests of Ukraine and became a commander.

The film alternates interview segments with Berenshtein with scenes that dramatize his life. It’s clear that these moments are alive in Berenshtein’s memory. He says that he thinks about the war constantly. He speaks quietly and with little drama, but the imagined scenes tremble with fear and terrible purpose. In a re-created memory, Nazis, as they often did, drive villagers into a barn and burn it. Watching from a distance, Berenshtein holds his fighters back, because he knows they too would be massacred. He doesn’t hold back the next time, though. His group saves people and eventually they discover where in Poland the Nazis are building the lethal V-2 rockets, and pass the information to allied forces.

This is a still from the movie 'Berenshtein,'  featuring Lilya Ostapovich (left) as Marina and Yaroslav Kucherenko as the young Leonid Berenshtein leaning against a wooden wall and peering around the side.
Courtesy of JCC Mizel Arts and Culture Center
In the movie 'Berenshtein,' Lilya Ostapovich (left) as Marina and Yaroslav Kucherenko as the young Leonid Berenshtein are featured in a scene.

Berenshtein says he learned to be cruel. When four young men in his group loot and rape, he tells a junior officer to kill them. His understated words leave you shaken with what that implies and what this man carried with him for the rest of his life.

In the 1960s, Soviet-dominated Poland went through heightened repression. Polish director Krzysztof Lang’s new film 'March 1968' looks at Poland specifically in 1968, when much of Europe and the United States went through major political upheavals. There’s a romance between a young actress and a science student. Hania is the Jewish daughter of a doctor who has been forced out of his work by revived anti-Semitic policies, while Janek’s father leads the repression in Warsaw.

Hania joins the protests and boyfriend Janek follows her into political activism, which neither he – nor his nasty father – ever imagined. The movie is good enough, and it reminds us that in our time of renewed bigotries, terrible things can happen in a world that appears on the surface to be playful and normal.

The best of the films I’ve seen from this festival is an intricate French picture by Fred Cavayé, 'Farewell, Mr. Haffmann.' The fine Daniel Auteuil plays Haffmann, a skilled maker of jewelry in Paris at the time of the Nazi invasion. He sends his wife and kids off to the south of France, which was still partly safe for Jews, and he makes a deal with his assistant Mercier. He sells the shop to Mercier for nothing; Mercier can run the shop and make money, and when the war ends, Haffmann will take the shop back and pay for Mercier to open his own place.

The connection between the men grows progressively gnarly. Haffmann leaves, but his smuggler abandons him, and he returns to the shop to live hidden in the basement. Mercier and his wife want a baby, but Mercier is sterile and he comes up with the harebrained notion that Haffmann can father a child. And worse, a Nazi commander loves the jewelry which, it turns out only Haffmann in the basement can make beautifully enough.

'Farewell, Mr Haffmann' viscerally shows how Nazism perverts human life and twists decent human instincts into malice, greed and horror.

Not all the films at the festival are about Nazis. There are also plenty of comedies to choose from. Find film times, movie descriptions and all you need to know about the Denver Jewish Film Festival on the festival website.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.