- On Sutak’s Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939–1949
Perhaps no decade in modern Jewish history—perhaps no decade since the destruction of the Second Temple—has been so packed with significance as the ten years that began in 1939. The horrifically unimaginable was followed by the thrillingly unpredicted. No catastrophe like the Holocaust can be said to have been redeemed. But the birth of a Jewish state, however much historians of the Yishuv can trace the achievement of sovereignty to forces independent of the shock of the Final Solution, cannot in retrospect be removed from the same cataclysmic decade as the torment of the refugee crisis, the plight of Diasporic Jewry beleaguered by anti-Semitism hardly limited to the distinctive terror of the Third Reich, the impact of totalitarianism, and the momentum of decolonization and nationalism.
How did such extraordinary historical experiences register in the past century’s supreme medium of mass communication? One answer is reflected in movie poster exhibits that were mounted in the spring of 2007 and then again in the spring of 2008 at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York City. This seductive, lovingly designed, and informative volume stems from those exhibits, which Ken Sutak very ably produced. Cinema [End Page 192] Judaica constitutes an impressive feat of archeology, of an era that begins with a feature film like Warner Bros.’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, USA, 1939), starring Edward G. Robinson, and ends with a quartet of obscure movies set during Israel’s fight for independence.
The phrase that serves as the title of this book, Sutak writes, may have originated in Los Angeles, “to promote revival screenings of Jewish-themed films” (99), and to attract audiences to concerts where the film scores by Jewish composers were performed. The author gives no exact dates, however. Nor is his own definition of a “Jewish-themed” movie unduly rigid. The Stranger (Orson Welles, USA, 1946), for example, includes documentary footage of concentration camps. But none of the major characters (portrayed by Orson Welles, who also directed the film, Loretta Young, and the ubiquitous Edward G. Robinson) is Jewish; and the Nazis were not too finicky about whom they chose to imprison and torture in the camps. What makes The Stranger Jewish is therefore dubious. Cinema Judaica even includes a Disney cartoon, Education for Death (Clyde Geronimi, USA, 1943). Or take The House I Live In (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1945). Perhaps no nine-minute short in the history of Hollywood has enjoyed more acclaim. This movie won a special Academy Award for “Tolerance Short Subject,” as well as a Golden Globe Award for “Best Film for Promoting International Good Will.” These prizes, in the immediate aftermath of the Final Solution, signaled a shift in the zeitgeist. But the kid Frank Sinatra protects from young bigots in the film is bullied because of his different “religion”; it is not explicitly mentioned as Judaism. During a decade when prejudice was widely believed to be indivisible, as though anti-Semitism and racism were interchangeable, and when universalistic values were often considered the best refuge for an embattled people, it was prudent not to be too specific.
The House I Live In was scripted by Albert Maltz, and Lewis Allan (the pseudonym used by Abel Meerepol) is co-credited with writing the title song. Two years after RKO’s short subject was released, Maltz would be subpoenaed to testify as a member of the Hollywood 10 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eight years after Sinatra introduced this musical plea for pluralism, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would be electrocuted; and Meerepol would adopt their orphaned sons. Despite the marvelous evocation of the decade that the visual artifacts in Cinema Judaica achieve, it misses something crucial, which is the politics of many of the filmmakers themselves. The struggle against anti-Semitism was largely a leftist struggle, just as the New Deal had enhanced [End...