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Pizza and Showtunes

Israeli documentary gets post-Holocaust and postmodern

“Hello?…Is that Hitler…No, we’re still here…No, we’re on our way to visit the Camp now…You didn’t kill us yet, no, speak to you later”

So she puts the phone down and they continue on their family outing to the next Concentration Camp, visiting the next tourist point in the life of Danny, a twinkle-eyed Holocaust survivor. Smoke some fags, drink some booze, and then argue argue argue about how yes, it’s shit to have been in the Camps, but really, it makes you a total drag as a Father.

Next morning, the Waitress comes in the hotel to ask for breakfast orders. They want water. “Do you want gas?”. And they all burst into laughter. Even the silent Frum son. So on they go, next stop Auschwitz for a combo meal of pizza, Kaddish, shouting at German youth, and more arguing- a sleepover in the barracks where you nearly died as a boy.

This is “Pizza in Auschwitz”, a new Israeli documentary by Moshe Zimmerman, and a remarkable step towards post-Holocaust documentary, marking a key move in Jewish and Israeli culture. I saw it a documentary festival in Amsterdam, preceded by a Holocaust documentary of the bad old kind – old men being left to narrate endlessly, the same archive footage as ever, stirring irritating music. How you can hope to honour the memory of the dead and living with this kind of schmaltzy turn-off, I have no idea.

But then Pizza in Auschwitz came on – I already loved the name, and soon I loved the family. Danny, the Survivor, can’t relate to other humans – they haven’t suffered like him, what do they have to complain about? He doesn’t want sympathy though, he just wants people to stop moaning. He doesn’t even really care about memorialising the Holocaust, he thinks that’s all a load of moaning too. And he looks superb too, in a little peaked cap and woolly jumper. His children, Miri and Sagi, are quite cool too, but Miri in particular is so Jewish, constantly griping and getting upset. Though they did grow up with a Father who threatened that an SS officer would come through the door any minute.

So Miri and Sagi refuse to really care about the Holocaust, it’s this thing that their Dad uses to beat them with. Like for many Jews, survivors or otherwise, the Holocaust is his ‘thing’, sort of like film is my ‘thing’. And it’s so thingy, that it’s stripped of any physical meaning, any link to a historical event – it’s a free-floating signifier drifting in a boundless space of identities. Danny’s Holocaust doesn’t refer to the event or to his experiences, it’s become an identity which could just as easily be changed with any other. He is a ‘Survivor’ and nothing else. Miri and Sagi want him to be a Father, or maybe just a Person, but they don’t have the language to express that, so they argue. Or more regularly they make sick and lovely Holocaust jokes.

Danny decides to take them on a whistle stop tour of the European places where he nearly died. But what we see, if you go beyond the family dynamics, is a journey to conceive of visual Holocaust subjects who are more complex than the dead-end of ‘Survivor or Nothing’. Holocaust documentary traditionally grants subjectivity to its characters exclusively as Survivor or Dead. But even when considering this area of total horror, documentary can’t abandon its responsibility for more complex subject positions – a documentary where there are only heroes and victims is an incomplete film. And as the documentary develops, Danny’s continuous attempts to lock himself in the position of Survivor are denied by his family, until the final confrontation, with the pizza being eaten in the Auschwitz barracks, where the lines are drawn and Danny is invited back into the world of complex subjectivity.

And indeed by the treatment he receives at the hands of the Auschwitz administrative staff, where unwittingly the jobsworths responsible for the ‘museum’ challenge him with a total lack of respect for his carefully-maintained Survivor persona. Are they the agents of post-Holocaust documentary? I think so.

If this sounds like agenda-pushing filmmaking, it really isn’t. It’s a pretty traditional observational doc – a great experience, but simply from a film critique angle there’s no great authorial voice or anything. But you can’t say that for Avi Mograbi, whose documentary “Z32” I also saw at the same festival, and which is way more knowingly staking its postmodern stake in the heart of historical trauma.

Mograbi is a remarkable filmmaker anyway, but this is truly his epic wonder. The faces of those who collaborated in the brutal revenge murder of two Palestinian policemen are animated, and the emotional narrative set to music, written and performed by Mograbi. The animation and the tunes are both crude and totally jarring. In fact it all looks a bit horrible, but that’s Mograbi’s weapon. A girlfriend of a solider who delighted in killing innocent people is visibly shocked at the man she loves but is imprisoned in the social milieu of her Israeli life, where she’s always been told this was OK. The whole thing would be a sad and frustrating story were it not that Mograbi makes it playful and unreal – so inappropriately that you feel disgusted and dirty as a viewer seeing death made into such silliness.

But this isn’t being silly for the sake of it. Mograbi doesn’t want to do another documentary where the same old Israeli-Palestinian cast are wheeled out for another outing – the handsome naïve soldier, the grieving victim, the indifferent public, the liberal (or not so liberal) expert. He wants us to think about how easily we know the narrative of the conflict, and how complicit we are in letting it be impotently retold over and over until, like Holocaust stories, we don’t see real people, we see role-playing. Mograbi makes himself be the performer so that we might question how much this bastard of a soldier is also performing. And how we let documentary-makers and their subjects so easily bewitch us with clichéd subject positions when shooting Israel, letting us sleepwalk towards indifference.

Mograbi’s said of this film “30 years ago when artists were writing a letter protesting and making it public, it was making an impact. Now Israeli social life is controlled by financiers and corrupted politicians and I don’t think they care about what people say here”

But he’s wrong. I care because he’s not banging a dogmatic drum, making bad linear documentaries with it which fit an easy world view of good and evil stick men and women. He’s making postmodern conflict documentary and I think that that does change things and call us to action.
This has been a great year for Israeli documentary generally, what with Waltz with Bashir’s high profile in particular (although it’s funny how it didn’t become the ‘must see’ that every other Jewish-related film becomes in the cafes of Jewish life. Hmmm, wonder why, eh?). I can’t imagine Jewish filmmakers outside of Israel being this brave with the holy cows of victimhood subjectivity. How good a year has it been? Even the Jewish Film Festival had a really good programme (sorry we were rude to you last year, chaps)

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