The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival begins this coming Thursday, July 18, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 4 — roughly coinciding with your humble scribe’s annual summer hiatus. Consequently, this week’s column will provide a brief summary of some of the festival’s highlights over the next fortnight. Bookmark this page, and click the links for San Francisco screenings!
Comedies and documentaries are particularly well represented this year, with director Sönke Wortmann’s Der Vorname (questionably and curiously retitled How About Adolf? for Anglophone markets; screening at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre at 8:50 p.m. on Aug. 4) leading the way. A barbed ensemble piece reminiscent of the plays of Alan Ayckbourn and Yasmina Reza, the film skewers polite, middle-class German society and underscores its unwillingness to do anything substantive in the fight against fascism. It’s both hilarious and biting, with a notable performance by Christoph Maria Herbst — Germany’s Clifton Webb, I’d wager — as an uptight literature professor.
Almost as good is Daniel Schechter’s Safe Spaces (8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31 at the Albany Twin). Justin Long plays Josh, an adjunct professor in New York who finds himself in hot water after coercing one of his students into making an embarrassing personal revelation in class. To complicate matters, his grandmother (the wonderful Lynn Cohen) lies dying in hospital, his mother (Fran Drescher) is struggling with her impending loss, and his annoying siblings (Kate Berlant and Michael Godere) are, well, annoying. Deftly documenting the challenges facing 21st-century educators — and the concomitant realignment of power relationships on campus — Safe Spaces is also an extremely well written and heartwarming family comedy.
Islam might not seem like obvious subject matter at a Jewish film festival, but Adam Zucker’s documentary American Muslim (11:30 a.m. on Friday, July 26 at the Albany Twin) is well worth your while. Framed around the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, Zucker’s film examines the daily lives of five Brooklyn Muslims and discusses a number of contentious issues: stereotyping (all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims), sex segregation in the Muslim community, 9/11, and civil rights.
Made in Auschwitz: The Untold Story of Block 10 (1:15 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1 at the Albany Twin) documents the medical experiments undertaken by Carl Clauberg, a Nazi doctor whose speciality was sterilizing female inmates against their will. The film includes gut-wrenching personal testimony from six survivors (five of whom have died since the film’s completion).
Carl Laemmle was the man who founded Universal Pictures, and his life is documented in Carl Laemmle (12 noon on Saturday, July 27 at the Albany Twin). Born in Laupheim, Germany — where no Jews were allowed to live before 1724 — Laemmle came to America as a young man, battled Thomas Edison’s motion picture trust, and was soon running his own movie production company. The kindly Laemmle hired most of his family to work for him, but also spent thousands rescuing German Jews in the run-up to the Second World War.
Curtiz (6:40 p.m. on Saturday, July 27 at the Albany Twin) is a gorgeous black-and-white biopic of the famous Hungarian director of the same name. Set during the production of Michael Curtiz’s most famous film, Casablanca, the film features a stellar performance from Ferenc Lengyal as the prickly cineaste, as well as strong support from Evelin Dobos as daughter Kitty, József Gyabronka as ‘Cuddles’ Sakal, and Andrew Hefler as Jack Warner. Fans of Golden Age Hollywood will approve.
Finally, Bruno Ganz is wonderful (and unrecognizable) as Sigmund Freud circa 1937 in Der Trafikant (The Tobacconist; 6:15 p.m. on Sunday, Aug.4 at the Piedmont). It’s a bittersweet reminder of the late actor’s immense talent.