Just as the lulav that we use on the festival of Sukkot is made up of three different trees - palm, myrtle and willow - I want to reflect on three films I’ve seen in recent months, bind them together for this season – and see if I can add in that exotic etrog element along the way.
The first, Ida, is still on at selected cinemas in the UK. Made in exquisite black-and-white by the Polish-born director, Pawel Pawlikowski, (who’s lived in England for many years and developed a successful film and TV career here), in this film we see him returning to his historical roots. Set in his homeland, the film opens in a convent where Anna, a trainee nun, is shown immersed in the devotion and calm and austerity of the enclosed Catholic order which has been her world since infancy - having come there as an orphan. We see the rhythms of daily life and the contained stillness of Anna, and there’s little dialogue until Anna is told by her strict mother superior that she needs to visit her only relative, an aunt whom she has never met, before she takes her final vows freely, once she’s had some contact with the outside world.
Inside the convent there is a kind of timelessness, it’s an ordered and unchanging world, but outside we see a Poland grey and bleak, immersed in the rigours of early 1960s Stalinism, with material impoverishment intertwined with spiritual impoverishment – her aunt, Wanda, has been a local judge dispensing state-approved justice to the perceived enemies of communism, but is now a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sexually amoral woman approaching her middle years and burdened, we gradually find, by secrets and regrets and an unassuageable pain connected with her past, and indeed the past of her country.
I am not going to give away too much of the plot, because I urge you to see this masterly gem of a film for yourself, but as the film proceeds you see how much of Poland’s past is buried (figuratively and literally) under the surface of daily life. Within the anonymous Catholic habit that Anna wears it turns out there is a young woman who has not known that she is Jewish – Ida Lebenstein, hidden after the murder of her parents during the War.
And inside the louche aunt who becomes determined to track down where Ida’s parents were killed and buried, is a woman embittered by the failures of her own youthful ideological commitment to communism, a woman haunted by the unbearable knowledge that because of her commitment to the Polish anti-Nazi resistance, she’d left her child with her sister, Ida’s mother, only for the boy to be killed along with Ida’s parents.
As in Claude Lanzmann’s epic 1985 documentary Shoah, we are shown the post-War denial by those who took over Jewish homes and property about having any knowledge of anything to do with the past: although this film’s narrative is fictional, it is also a slice of history. Through the story of these two women (each isolated in their own way) we are seeing the story of a nation – it becomes a sort of parable – and it’s wonderfully done, with a Biblical economy of storytelling: sparse, fragmented, a national morality tale told, like the stories of Genesis, through characters interacting, where there is a certain indeterminacy of meaning, and gaps in the information provided, and moral judgements about good and evil are suspended or called into question, and yet the whole story hangs together in a psychologically true way.
We note the name, ‘Lebenstein’ – life is as hard as stone, as unyielding as the Catholic faith that both contributed through its theology to the anti-semitism of Poles, yet occasionally helped save them. And as unyielding as the communism that overtook post-War Poland, with Jewish enthusiasts for the state’s communist idealism taking up leadership roles out of all proportion to their surviving numbers.
Our sukkah, humble in its fragility and impermanence, stands in stark contrast to the monumental rigidity of ideological regimes, whether pre-Vatican II Catholicism or post-War Euro-Stalinism, both of which demanded a submission to authorities who thought they knew what is best for people. But the sukkah, open to the elements, is a reminder of our vulnerability - which is a truth about the human condition mirrored in a film that shows how the dramas of history also expose our human vulnerability. Between 1939 and 1945 Poland lost a fifth of its population, including 3 million Jews. Through the story of Ida and Wanda, the film shows us the human costs of this harsh history - but it’s crafted and filmed by artists who know that you can only speak of the true horrors and burdens of the past elliptically, glimpsing from an angle what is unbearable to look at full on.
Ida is not another ‘Holocaust film’. And it’s as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s a small masterpiece of narrative filmic art that’s not just about Poland and its history, but about universal questions of justice and indifference, God and godlessness, innocence and guilt, love and hate, meaning and meaninglessness, and how complex the relationship between these apparent opposites actually is.
My second film occupies very different terrain and is exactly twice the length of Ida’s pared down 80 minutes. But it’s equally wondrous. You may well have seen it, or at least read about it: Boyhood by Richard Linklater, who made those three interlinked movies between 1995 and 2013, ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘Before Sunset’, and ‘Before Midnight’, each with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy, tracing the relationship of the couple over nearly two decades as the characters evolve from carefree youngsters in love with idea of love towards their middle years of adult complexity, discord and fragmenting hopes.
In Boyhood though, he has gone one step further. We watch a six year old child grow up into a college youth, twelve years of life unfolding scene by modest scene, without much plot, without much story, but filled with the intimate, everyday stuff of life: quarrels with his sister, a harassed working mother, her partners changing over time, step-children appearing then disappearing, changing technology, changing hairstyles, clothes, schools, music of each era from Britney Spears in the 1990s up till today, the craze for Harry Potter, the constant background growl of politics on TV, Clinton, the Iraq War, Obama. Episodes from a life.
But all the time that you are watching, although it’s a fictional scenario you are aware that it is the same actors evolving over time. Because this was Linklater’s vision. Like Michael Apted’s famous 7-Up documentaries here in the UK, tracing the lives of a group of British children from 1957 to the present, Linklater has done the seemingly impossible. He’s filmed a boy growing up, arranging for the cast to come together for a few weeks each year, so although we know the actors are acting we also know that this is really them aging, year after year. And although you see it in the boy Mason’s parents, you see it most obviously in Mason himself as he grows in front of your eyes from boyhood to adulthood. Not different child actors, but the transformation over 160 minutes of 12 years of real life. And the pathos is in seeing the irreversible nature of time passing and people aging – and it sounds obvious, that we all get older year by year, and you might not think it would make a very compelling film, but it does (although I know some people found it boring).
It strikes me that it is the film equivalent of the text from Ecclesiastes that we read on Sukkot, that festival of rest amidst the desert wanderings: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every experience under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time for planting and a time for uprooting... a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for silence and a time for speaking...’ But whereas there is a sceptical voice in that Biblical book that says ‘Yes, and there is nothing new under the sun’, Linklater turns that on its head and says ‘No, everything is new under the sun, every day of your life – if you have eyes to see it...’
Linklater has given us a master class in holding the everyday sacred, and in how life is lived holding the tension between, or veering off between, opposite experiences, as the Ecclesiastes text evokes; but nothing is repeated - there is just evolution over time, and the chance to make the best of it we can, day by day, year by year, shaping our own lives and being shaped by life. It may not sound as if this amounts to very much as a film, but as Mason grows in front of our eyes - as in time-lapse photography - we accumulate moments that build into something deeply satisfying, joyous and life-enhancing.
Which takes me to my third film, which is perhaps the opposite of joyous and life-enhancing: it is painful and kind of soul-destroying, but utterly necessary to see. Certainly if you want to have any credibility when talking about Israel and its history over the last 60 plus years in relation to the Palestinians, then it is a vital document for our times. Over the summer - it was actually during the latest Gaza war - I caught up with the 2012 Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers. (As it happens, in the UK it’s on BBC2 this Saturday night, October 11th, followed by a Newsnight discussion).
Director Dror Moreh interviews six retired heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret security service, who speak with surprising openness, frankness, about the ways in which their concern for Israel’s security saw them in constant tension with the political leadership of the State, who consistently failed to make the necessary compromises and strategic decisions which could have led to a more peaceful co-existence between the people who share this tiny strip of land. The accumulating narrative of archive footage and military footage interspersed with these voices is disturbing, devastating – and the section on how the Shin Bet foiled Jewish terrorist plots to blow up the Dome of the Rock is hair-raising.
These men are not bleeding-heart liberals, ‘lefties’. They are men with blood on their hands: hard, hard men, living with the ambiguities and complexities of real life, everyday life, dealing with Arab terrorists and Jewish fanatics, trying to find pragmatic responses to chauvinism, zealotry and the wilful self-righteousness of those who – for religious or political reasons – believe, know, they have right on their side, and want to force it onto others, even unto death. We know all about Palestinian murderousness, but I’d forgotten the rabid hatred in Israel that preceded the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, the one leader who was prepared to compromise for the sake of peace; the poisonous atmosphere in which he was harangued as a traitor, compared to Hitler, with the Shin Bet fearful for his security but unable to persuade him to wear bulletproof protection when he addressed political gatherings. History turns on such decisions, on the pride of a man, on the naivety of a man who couldn’t believe that Jews would murder their own prime minister.
The reviewer of this film in Ha’aretz – who described watching it as like ‘a waterboarding of the soul’ – bemoaned the way that in Israel, following the release of the film, these six retired old men, aging men, ‘who were once considered heroes’ were now being ‘labelled traitors, because they dare cry out that the emperor has no clothes’. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes near the end when one of them says, quietly, simply: ‘We win every battle, but lost the war.’ If you haven't seen it, catch it this weekend, if you can. It’s a necessary film, and one in a curious way that is linked in subterranean ways to the story of Ida, and the way history – and in this case the history of the years between 1939 and 1945 – is still alive and toxic and infiltrates daily life in often unseen ways, and certainly reverberates in the Israeli psyche up till today.
Life is fragile – we say it again and again. It is at the heart of Sukkot. Life is transient, it’s open to the elements that rain down on us, and that can sweep us away. And yet in the tradition we call Sukkot ‘Zman Simchatenu’ – ‘the season of our rejoicing’. Because life, with all its starkness and uncertainty, is also a blessing: like the etrog with the lulav, the wonderful smell lingers in our nostrils, and we can appreciate how, as our lives unfold moment by precious moment, year by precious year, joyfulness is also grafted to our souls. In spite of everything that is antithetical to life, we can and do experience wonder and goodness; there is, as Ecclesiastes says, ‘a time for wailing – and a time for dancing’. On this festival, may our souls dance to the beat of life.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the morning of the first day of Sukkot, October 9th, 2014]