• The MAMBONIKS. Havana Cuba, New Year's Eve 1957.
  • Actor Zero Mostel, center, who portrays Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2019

If it’s July, it must be the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival—the 39th edition this year.

            And as always, the festival promises a wide array of feature films, documentaries, shorts, director appearances, and discussions–not only in San Francisco but also in Albany, Piedmont, Palo Alto, and San Rafael.  The combined dates are July 18th to August 4th, for a total of 135 screenings.  The  number of films is 65, from countries including Ethiopia, Mexico, and Russia, as well as the usual suspects—the US, Israel, Germany, etc.

            Of those films, several can be grouped into three stand-out categories: films related to music, films starring well-known characters and actors, and, of course, films dealing with the Holocaust.

            The opening night film, on Tuesday, July 18th at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, is “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.”  In case you hadn’t guessed, the film deals with the beloved 1964 show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Broadway’s longest-running musical, by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick.  The film features clips from productions, including the current Yiddish-language hit playing in New York.

            Another music-themed film is “The Mamboniks.”  A Cuban dance, the mambo was a 1950s craze at Catskills resorts, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs.  The film was shot in Miami Beach, Havana, and the Catskills.

            “It Must Be Schwing!” is a documentary about Blue Note Records, the birthplace of modern jazz, founded by two refugees from Nazi Germany.  Lovers of bebop and cool jazz—this film’s for you!

            Films featuring well-known and well-loved actors and other people are as follows:

            “Curtiz” is a bio-pic about Michael Curtiz, forever remembered as the director of “Casablanca.”  The life of the director, a native of Hungary, parallels that of his characters: at the time he was shooting the film that’s on many people’s “favorites” list, he was attempting to get his own family out of Europe and struggling with clueless Hollywood bigwigs over his film.  Incidentally, Curtiz directed many other films besides “Casablanca,”  including “This Is the Army,” “Mission to Moscow,” “Mildred Pierce,” and more.

            Carl Laemmle, subject of the film with the same name, was the founder, in 1912,  of Universal Pictures, the studio that created films such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.”  Less famously, Laemmle also rescued over 300 Jewish refugee families from Hitler.

            Other historical figures include Golda Meir (1898-1951), the much-loved prime minister of Israel (“Golda”); and Benjamin Netanyahu, the not-so-much loved current prime minister (“King Bibi”).

            Films about film stars include “Love, Antosha,” about “Star Trek”’s Anton Yelchin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States with his parents and died tragically at age 27.

            “Before You Know It” is a feature film starring the much-loved (by me, at any rate) Mandy Patinkin (“The Princess Birde,” “Chicago Hope,” “Homeland,” etc.).  It’s a family drama, with Patinkin playing the eccentric dad.

            Billy Crystal (too bad he isn’t still hosting the Oscars!) plays a dermatologist in “Standing Up, Falling Down,” a comedy about an aspiring comedian (not Billy Crystal) who befriends the Crystal character.

            The late great Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz (“Downfall,” “The Boys from Brazil,” “Wings of Desire”) stars in the Austrian film, “The Tobacconist.”  Set in 1937 Vienna, the film stars Ganz as—wait for it—Sigmund Freud.  Any resemblance is purely accidental.

            Finally, Holocaust films.

            “You Only Die Twice” is a documentary about Israeli filmmaker Yair Lev and his search for his family’s background, involving two death certificates for the same person—Lev’s grandfather—and the story behind that mystery, set partly during the Holocaust.  “Made in Auschwitz: The Untold Story of Block 10” is a documentary about the medical experiments made on young women during the Holocaust by a gynecologist named Carl Clauberg, a lesser-known figure than the notorious Josef Mengele, also of Auschwitz.

            There are many more noteworthy films, of course, but I’ve saved one of the most tantalizing for last: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.”

            The late New Yorker film critic, hated as much as she was loved and revered, features interviews with director Paul Schrader, Vogue film critic Molly Haskell, and others.

            From her humble start as the child of Petaluma (California) chicken farmers, to the presenter of film reviews on Berkeley independent radio station KPFA, to the pinnacle of film critic renown, Kael never minced words or attempted to dull her razor-sharp tongue.  I read her reviews eagerly, not least because before she moved to New York (selling many of her prized Tiffany lamps to finance the move), Kael was my neighbor and occasional passenger en route to the San Francisco Film Festival (she neither drove nor typed).

            The festival runs July 18 to 28th at San Francisco’s Castro Theater; July 20 to 25th; July 20 to 25th in Palo Alto;’s Cine Arts Theater; July 25 to August 1 in Albany (next door to Berkeley) at the Albany Twin; August 2 to 4th in Oakland’s Piedmont; and also August 2 to 4 in San Rafael’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.  Ticket prices range from $12 for a single film to $425 for an all-festival pass, with many rates in between for Jewish Film Institute members and others.  Tickets are available on-site and online at sfjff.org/tickets.

San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.