One of the stalest of film advertising clichés is the reviewer’s pull quote demanding that “if you only see one film this year, be sure it’s Film X.” I’ve always tried to avoid this hackneyed phrase in my own writing, but nobody’s perfect: This week, I’m compelled to suggest that if you only see one documentary this year, let it be Babi Yar. Context. Alternatively, if you only watch one film featured at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — running from Thursday, July 21, through Sunday, Aug. 7 — this should be it.
You may remember the fuss about Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old when it was released in late 2018. Jackson’s feature consisted of long unseen World War I footage colorized to remarkable (if somewhat controversial) effect, augmented with sound effects, and adjusted to run at 24 fps, restoring its long-diminished immediacy and impact.
Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa hasn’t colorized anything in Babi Yar. Context (screening at the Castro Theatre at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 24), but he has taken two hours of rarely seen archival footage and added sound and dialogue to it. The effect is truly astounding: At first, I was convinced I was watching genuine sound film shot during and after Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
And then, of course, there is the footage — and the story — itself. We see the Wehrmacht advance into the Ukrainian cities of Lvov and Kiev, where they are greeted as heroes and liberators; we see Jewish citizens being rounded up by right-wing Ukrainian militia to be murdered in the titular ravine; we see, finally, Soviet troops re-occupy the same cities two years later where they, too, are greeted as heroes and liberators.
It’s impossible to watch this film without thinking of current events. While some pundits have suggested that Ukrainian Nazis don’t exist and that claims to the contrary are “Russian talking points,” the truth is and always has been far less comforting. Babi Yar. Context offers a shocking history lesson and sobering commentary on the present day, and couldn’t come at a better time.
If you prefer drama to documentary, you’ll likely love Adieu Monsieur Haffmann (Farewell, Mr. Haffmann), screening at the Castro at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 23). Written and directed by Fred Cavayé, the film stars Daniel Auteuil as the title character, a Jewish jeweler hidden in his Paris basement by apprentice jeweler Mercier (Gilles Lellouche) during the early days of the German occupation.
Cavayé has constructed a deft blend of character study and thriller, with Haffmann featuring plenty of suspense and unexpected but believable plot twists. In addition, his cast — also including Sara Giraudeau as Mercier’s wife, Blanche, and Nikolai Kinski (looking just like his famous father, Klaus) as German officer Jünger — is superb. This very satisfying feature cannily defies audience expectations while keeping viewers on the edge of their seat.
Also noteworthy at this year’s festival: Chanoch Ze’evi’s Bad Nazi, Good Nazi (screening online and at the Albany Twin at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26), an examination of a German village’s conflicted relationship with local hero and Germany Army officer Wilm Hosenfeld (famous for saving — amongst others — The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman), and Mr. Bernstein’s Wall (screening at the Castro at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 23), a thorough recounting of the life of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein as told by Bernstein himself.