Jewish Film History

A Journey Through Jewish Film History

Jewish film history opens our eyes to the ways in which film history and Jewish history intersect. A journey through the history of Jewish film connects well-known and less well-known places and events with findings on the work of Jewish filmmakers; it leads to the institutions collecting films about lived Jewish experiences and topics, to Jewish film festivals, exhibitions and retrospectives. The journey offers insight into spaces in which films are seen and discussed and thereby made into ‘Jewish films’; it points to protests and debates regarding film screenings in cinemas and on television in which Jewish perspectives are expressed and talked about. The intervals between the stations we visit on our journey through Jewish film history vary. It will become apparent where the history of film markedly intersects with Jewish experiences.

1899-09-14 03:33:50

The Dreyfus Affair on Film

The legal scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair involving the French officer Alfred Dreyfus is not just one of the most significant historical events for Jewish people, with its many cultural and artistic adaptations; it also coincided with the advent of film. The 1899 silent film L’AFFAIRE DREYFUS by Georges Méliès is an especially early cinematic treatment of the scandal and considered the first political film ever made. Films dealing with the Dreyfus Affair emphasise varied aspects and are construed differently by critics and academics. Méliès’ silent film was said to represent an early political plea for Dreyfus, while Richard Oswald's DREYFUS (1930) reportedly carried anti-French undertones and promoted general human rights in the face of the ascendant National Socialists. THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, produced in the USA in 1937, was also said to be an indirect criticism of the Nazi regime in Germany. According to the critics, Karl Fruchtmann’s television film TROTZDEM (1989) may be understood as a reflection on post-National Socialist Germany and Roman Polanski’s INTRIGE (2019) an emphatic commentary against antisemitism in the present, to name just a few cinematic treatments of the subject matter.

1903-08-19 17:38:30

A gesture fight in Hester Street

The short film GESTURE FIGHT IN HESTER STREET, released in 1903, shows two Jews in a comical fight on the Lower East Side and can probably be considered the oldest surviving cinematic depiction of Jews. Hester Street, a central address in Jewish New York, has also been a point of reference for Jewish settings in other films. In 1975, it provided the name of Joan Micklin Silver’s cinematic début, which told the story of Jewish immigrants in New York at the end of the 19th century. HESTER STREET is still considered a classic of Jewish-American cinema and a restored version was screened at the New York Film Festival in 2021 after Joan Micklin Silver’s death the previous year.

1911-08-03 00:00:00

The First Film of Palestine von Murray Rosenberg

With a running time of 20 minutes, the first longer film about Palestine, the ‘Holy Land’, was initially screened at the 10th Zionist Congress in Basel and then shown worldwide on the big screen, primarily for Jewish audiences. Murray Rosenberg, a British Jew and activist in the Zionist movement in his country, produced a travelogue on the biblical cities and Jerusalem, in which he filmed Muslim festivities and Arab street scenes. His focus, however, was a portrait of Zionist settlements and institutions, such as the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design established by Boris Schatz in 1906. THE FIRST FILM OF PALESTINE served as a type of blueprint for the early Zionist films of the 1920s and 1930s.

1916-06-09 00:00:00

Lubitsch Comedies

Ernst Lubitsch, born in Berlin in 1892, is considered one of the most important Jewish filmmakers of the Weimar Republic. Known as ‘milieu comedies’, i.e. comedies of manners, his satirical examinations of the urban middle class have consistently been a subject in Jewish film studies owing to their open portrayal of Jewishness. In comedies such as SCHUHPALAST PINKUS (1916) and MEYER AUS BERLIN (1918), Lubitsch often portrayed ‘Jewish types’ who achieve their objectives by means of clever, humorous tricks. Lubitsch's open treatment of stereotypes of 'Jewishness' is interpreted differently in academia. On the one hand, his depictions are seen as a confident expression of Jewishness in the Weimar Republic (Ofer Ashkenazi); on the other, as a potential stepping stone to antisemitic ideas. These discussions not only testify to how controversially ‘Jewishness’ is negotiated in and around film, but also to how these negotiations, especially after the Holocaust, are accompanied by fears of antisemitism.

1923-09-03 03:59:54

“The Lubitsch Touch”: Ernst Lubitsch goes to Hollywood

In 1923, at the zenith of his career in Germany, Ernst Lubitsch emigrated to Hollywood following the invitation of Canadian actress and producer Mary Pickford and filmed his first American picture there with Pickford in the main role: ROSITA (1923). Lubitsch was part of the first wave of German-Jewish emigrants in the 1920s, who left voluntarily for Hollywood and did not have to flee like their (Jewish) colleagues ten years later. Lubitsch’s professional relocation was a success. He was able to continue his work in the USA and make more than just (social) comedies; following the invention of sound films, he also produced film operettas and musicals. Recurrent themes in his films include the illusions and realities of high society, love triangles and bourgeois couple conventions. ‘The Lubitsch Touch’ is just as much of a trademark for him as ‘Master of Suspense’ is for Hitchcock. It represents concealment, elegant obfuscation and insinuations that say everything – ultimately the art of omission. Lubitsch thus became a role model for important filmmakers, but also a point of reference for (subsequent) Jewish migrants such as Billy Wilder.

1923-10-29 00:00:00

Conflicts Between Tradition And Modernity

E.A. Dupont’s DAS ALTE GESETZ celebrated its première in Berlin. The film tells the story of a rabbi’s son who wants to be an actor and comes into conflict with his father as a result. This silent film presents a key conflict in Jewish film history: the conflict between tradition and modernity. The traditional Jewish world is represented by father figures who are often rabbis or cantors, with some still living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Their sons, the main characters, set out for the West, entering a new world. What could symbolise modern, non-Jewish society in a more memorable way than the entertainment industry? Thus, their sons seek their fortune as actors or singers in a majority non-Jewish society, a path that their fathers cannot accept, culminating in a more-or-less credible reconciliation between the generations. Alan Crosland’s early sound film THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) also tackled this subject, as did later Yiddish cinema productions.

1924-07-24 00:00:00

Die Stadt ohne Juden (AT 1924)

Following the sweeping success of Hugo Bettauer’s novel DIE STADT OHNE JUDEN, it is made into a film. The plot plays out the scenario of the potential consequences of Jews being expelled from society. Economic and cultural life in the fictitious city, based on Vienna, falls apart after they leave. Many contemporary Jews criticised the cinematic portrayal of the stereotype that Jews control the economy. The novel’s author was shot dead by a Nazi in 1925.

1927-08-04 00:00:00

Who Or What Is The ‘jew On Film’? – A Journalistic Discussion

At the end of the 1920s, some of the major Jewish newspapers in Germany broached the issue of satirical interpretations of Jewish characters in revues, theatre and film. In 1927, the Jewish film critics Hans Wollenberg and Max Kolpenitzky published two articles with the same title: “Der Jude im Film”. On 4 August 1927, actor and poet Max Kolpenitzky wrote in the Jewish weekly newspaper Israelitisches Familienblatt: “Even today, in the 20th century, Jews are condemned to play the role of Shylock or Judas.” In an essay for the Jewish weekly C V. Zeitung, Hans Wollenberg, editor of the film magazine Lichtbild-Bühne from 1920 onwards, criticised the fact that Jewish actors and directors were taking part in antisemitic productions and earning money from these roles. Similar debates about casting policies in the arena of ‘Jewish film’ continue. For example, the new film GOLDA triggered a discussion in January 2022 about whether Helen Mirren, a non-Jewish actress, should play the role of the first female prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir. In 2021, American comedian Sarah Silverman exposed the problem posed by this common Hollywood practice of portraying Jews under the term ‘Jewface’ in reference to the racist practice of blackface.

1927-10-26 17:38:30

The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson

The first major ‘talkie’ in cinema history is a film with a decidedly Jewish subject and autobiographical characteristics referencing the US entertainer and singer Al Jolson (1882‑1950). It shows the poor Jewish singer Jakie Rabinowitz breaking with Jewish traditions. Instead of becoming a cantor in the synagogue, as planned by his father, Rabinowitz becomes a celebrated Broadway star. Produced by Warner Bros. in 1927, THE JAZZ SINGER was still mainly a silent film despite long stretches of sound. Owing to its commercial success and artistic quality, however, it heralded the triumph of the sound film. The film portrays the character of the cantor’s son and the conflict between tradition and modernity, both well established in US-American films, alongside the racist tradition of blackface.

1929-02-01 00:00:00

Togo Mizrahi and the Egyptian Films Company

The Italian-Jewish Egyptian Joseph Elie "Togo" Mizrahi (1901-1986) founds the "Egyptian Films Company" in Alexandria. Between 1930 and 1946, he produces and directes about 40 Arabic-language and four Greek-language films, thus contributing significantly to the emergence and first flowering of Egyptian cinema. In his films, Mizrahi frequently uses the devices of masquerade and mistaken identity to paint a pluralistic picture of Egyptian society. At the end of 1946, Mizrahi was accused of having participated in the dissemination of Zionist films. He did not make any more films after that and left Egypt for Italy after the revolution and the fall of King Faruk in 1952.

Jewish Film History

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