Jewish Cinema: Jewish victims, Jewish villains

The Jew as victim: Roman Polanski plays Trelkovsky in his 1976 movie "The Tenant."

The Jew as victim: Roman Polanski plays Trelkovsky in his 1976 movie “The Tenant.”


Director Roman Polanski’s next film is expected to be “D,” based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer who was falsely charged with treason in France in the late 1800’s. Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison in 1894 even though the French government knew he was innocent. His name was eventually cleared through the help of the writer Emile Zola.
Polanski, who hopes to film the movie in his native Poland next year, has inspired speculation that he intends to create comparisons between the Dreyfus case and his own legal problems in the United States, which Polanski fled in 1978 after a conviction of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.
What has not been mentioned in the coverage of this choice for a subject matter is the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish, as is the director. When he first announced that he planned to make “D,” Polanski issued a statement calling the story “the age-old spectacle of the witch hunt of a minority group.”
By now it’s well known that Polanski was born in Paris, but his parents relocated to Poland a few years before the Nazi invasion, and he suffered the trauma of being a Jew during the Holocaust. His mother and sister both died in concentration camps, and Polanski himself was raised by a family of Catholic peasants. He learned to hide his religion in order to survive. After the war, he experienced the alienation of being a Jew in the Soviet-dominated Poland.
Curiously, though, of the more than 30 movies that Polanski has made, both feature length and shorts, Judaism has only been featured within six of those movies – three explicitly, and in three others, implied. If Polanski does make “D,” it will mark only the seventh film that deals with the Jewish faith. This is true both of films with original screenplays written by Polanski and his collaborators, and scripts he adapted from the works of others.
It’s also interesting to note that within those six films, the Jewish characters are sometimes portrayed as victims … and sometimes as villains. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all approach to how Polanski presents Jewish characters, in films that offered a mix of historical dramas, comedies and horror movies.
In his book “The ‘Jew’ in Cinema,” author Omer Bartov notes that Jews have tended to be presented in four ways on screen. During the Nazi era, the film industry in Germany portrayed Jews as villains in anti-Semitic movies like “Jud Suss,” and after the second World War ended, Jews were often portrayed as victims in films that recounted the Nazi onslaught and atrocities.
More recently, movies have also portrayed Jews as heroes who bravely fought back and survived the Holocaust, and in many cases, as the “anti-hero” — or the hapless observer of the world’s tragedies and follies, as often seen in the cinema of Woody Allen.
In Polanski’s cinema, his dark studies of social alienation have given us Jews who are clearly victims, including in his surrealist short “Two Men and a Wardrobe,” the horror movie “The Tenant,” and in the historical drama “The Pianist” – which also features a lead character, the Polish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, who could also be considered both a victim and an anti-hero, one who wanders alone, passively observing the brutality inflicted on the city of Warsaw by the Nazis.
Since “The Pianist” also features Polish Jews who agreed to serve as the local police in the Jewish ghettos, under the control and supervision of the Nazis, that movie also gives us Jewish villains – a complexity that Polanski acknowledged when he made the film, and noted that the second World War featured both good and bad Jews, and good and bad Germans.
Jewish villains are also featured in three other Polanski movies: the comedy-horror film “Dance of the Vampires,” the horror movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” and his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”
Of these six films, Judaism is most directly referred to in “Dance of the Vampires” and “The Pianist,” while the ethnicity and religion of the characters as Jewish is implied in “Two Men and a Wardrobe,” “The Tenant,” and, most ironically, “Oliver Twist.” That’s even though the Dickens novel and the 1948 film version by director David Lean explicitly identified the character of the criminal Fagin as being a Jew.
Still, whether Polanski is directly identifying a character as being Jewish or just suggesting it, all six films re-enforce the director’s often despairing and depressing notion of a world where being the outsider, the “other,” can be a horrific experience.
In his essay “Exile and Emigration in the Films of Roman Polanski” (published in the book “Living in Translation: Polish Writers in America”) Herbert J. Eagle points out the fact that alienation remains one of Polanski’s top subject matters, despite the diversity of his overall body of work.
“In spite of Polanski’s explicit and repeated denials that his films are autobiographically motivated in any significant way, the consistent repetition or narrative motifs of exclusion, sexual exploitation, victimization and graphic violence suggest some degree of relevance to the director himself,” Eagle wrote.
That applies as well to the director’s often complex portrayal of the Jew in society today.
The Jew as villain
The Jewish villains in two Polanski horror movies, “Dance of the Vampires” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” seem more satirical than anything else, and perhaps a sly commentary on how anti-Semitism turns all Jews into something truly monstrous, a genuine threat to society and social order.
“Dance of the Vampires,” which Polanski wrote with Gerard Brach, tells the story of two vampire hunters who come to an inn in Transylvania, searching for the vampire’s castle. They are taken in by Shagal, the local Jewish inn-keeper. When Shagal’s daughter is kidnapped by the vampire, Count Von Krolock, Shagal goes to the castle to rescue her – only to get bitten himself and become one of the vampires. Then he returns to the inn to seek out the beautiful young maiden he has been secretly pursuing for sexual favors. When she sees him bare his fangs and raises a cross, Shagal laughs and says, “Oy, have you got the wrong vampire.”
The portrayal of a Jewish vampire is mostly comical, although underneath the silliness of watching two bumbling vampire hunters is a grimly pessimistic ending. Professor Abronsius and his assistant Alfred do save Sarah, Shagal’s daughter, and escape from the castle. But what they don’t know is she has become a vampire, too, and proceeds to sink her teeth into Alfred. As the movie’s narrator points out, far from saving the world from vampires, Abronsius has succeeded in helping the very evil he wanted to destroy to spread to the rest of the world – a fairly chilling notion, considering that the Nazis used the same concept as the rationale behind their efforts to exterminate the Jews.
The decision to have a Jewish vampire be among the “evil,” though, seems like a dark form of satire – similar, in fact, to “Rosemary’s Baby” featuring a group of Satanists that include a Jewish obstetrician, Dr. Abe Saperstein, who assists the plot to have Satan impregnate Rosemary so she can deliver the devil’s offspring. The fact that the Satanists are victorious in the end has a similar “spreading of evil” theme, although these two films are just two of the many deeply cynical endings that Polanski’s movies have provided audiences.
The fact that the director is Jewish and that the author of the book that “Rosemary’s Baby” was based on, Ira Levin, is as well, suggests a willingness to embrace an especially grim and despairing form of humor – something also seen in the films of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and other Jewish directors. Polanski and Levin appear to be winking at their satirical approach to Christian beliefs about the nature of evil, perhaps with a hint that Jews take a far more sophisticated and less superstitious approach to the idea.
At the same time, this kind of downbeat gallows humor seems integral to the Jewish identity, Bartov noted in his book. Describing the negative reviews given to Robert Benigni’s 1998 movie “Life Is Beautiful,” about a man and his son in a concentration camp, Bartov wrote “The incensed American reviewers of ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ who claimed self-righteously that one could not make a comedy about the Holocaust, seem to have had very little idea about the Jewish tradition of humor and its relationship to pain and persecution, about the specific role humor and fantasy played in attempts to survive or at least maintain a semblance of normality and humanity during the Holocaust.” Looking at the humor in “Dance of the Vampires” and “Rosemary’s Baby” and the otherwise horrific subjects they deal with, it would appear that Polanski applies the same notion of comedy as a survival tool to life itself, and not just the Holocaust.
The Jewish villain also features in “Oliver Twist,” by nature of the fact that Fagin is a master thief who recruits young boys to help him steal, and works along the brutal, vicious thug Bill Sykes. At the same time, Polanski and his screenwriter, Ronald Harwood (who is Jewish), and the actor portraying Fagin, Ben Kingsley (half-Jewish), seemed to go out of their way to downplay Fagin’s religion – something that cannot be said of the original Dickens novel or the way David Lean and actor Alec Guinness portrayed the character in the British film (made just a few years after the Holocaust). Polanski said repeatedly that he found Lean’s version to be offensively anti-Semitic and wanted his own movie to studiously avoid that trap, and as a result, Fagin is not given stereotypical characteristics (including an enlarged nose, as in the Lean version).
And while Fagin is clearly a villain, he’s also portrayed more sympathetically here, and it’s interesting that Polanski and Harwood have their Oliver experience mixed emotions about the man by the end. Fagin did in fact take him in and give him shelter and food when he was starving on the streets of London.
Polanski and Harwood also include a final scene, not in the Lean movie, where Oliver visits Fagin in prison and laments his coming execution. As usual, Polanski’s movies are a complex mix of emotions and feelings about justice and betrayal.
The Jew as Victim
There’s a great deal of complexity in Polanski’s portrayal of Jews and Christians in “The Pianist.” The Jews who became ghetto police officers find themselves assisting the Nazis in marching Jews onto the trains that will take them to concentration camps (whether the Jewish officers understand this or not isn’t clear); but it’s a Jewish officer who recognizes Szpilman and pulls him away from the line. It’s also Polish Christians who help Szpilman by hiding him in empty apartments in Warsaw, and a German Nazi soldier who finally saves his life by hiding the composer and bringing him food when he’s starving. Szpilman is clearly a victim, one nearly annihilated by the Nazi Final Solution; but by the middle of the film, Szpilman is very much an anti-hero, in the same way that Woody Allen’s characters often are, wandering across the brutal landscape as a helpless observer to the horrors all around him. Those horrors include the uprising in the Jewish ghetto, as they make a last-ditch effort to liberate themselves and fight back — and which ends tragically for them as the rebellion gets crushed. It’s a rebellion that Szpilman watches from his apartment window but takes no part in, which is why he survives.
Although Szpilman is clearly marked for execution because he is a Jew, the Jewish nature of the two men who emerge from the ocean with a wardrobe in “Two Men and a Wardrobe” (from an original script by Polanski) and the lead character of “The Tenant,” Trelkovsky, are not specifically identified as being Jews. But this is implied in both films.
When the two men bring their wardrobe into the city, they are repeatedly rebuffed – kicked out of hotels and restaurants, shoved off the trolley, and beaten up by young thugs. Why they are rejected, it seems, is that they’re perceived as being “different,” and not a part of the central crowd. It becomes impossible for them to assimilate.
As Eagle noted in his essay, “Both look possibly Jewish. The very short man with an elfin face was played by Polanski’s co-author on the scenario, Jakub Goldberg, who was indeed Jewish; the taller man …. Henryk Kluba, was asked to grow a beard for the role, which made him more Jewish looking.”
Since the film was made in Poland during the Soviet occupation, an era of strict government repression of artistic endeavors, it could be that Polanski wanted the Jewish nature of the characters to be subtle enough to escape the censors.
That wasn’t an issue when Polanski made “The Tenant” in 1976 for Paramount Studios, based on the novel by Polish-Jewish author Roland Topor. It tells the story of Trelkovsky, a meek office clerk in desperate need of an apartment, who learns one is available because a woman named Simone Choule threw herself out her window. We never learn why Choule committed suicide, but after Trelkovsky moves into her apartment, he finds himself increasingly harassed by his neighbors, who complain that he’s too noisy. That doesn’t seem to be the case, and it seems more likely they view Trelkovsky as being different (Jewish, perhaps?), as someone who doesn’t fit in, doesn’t belong in their building. Their harassment gets so emotionally draining for Trelkovsky – it includes threats of eviction and a complaint filed against him with the local police – that the tenant eventually follows in Choule’s path and throws himself out the window – not once, but twice.
The implication here is that both Choule and Trelkovsky are — like Polanski (who plays Trelkovsky) and Topor — both Jewish, Eagle noted.
“The names of the doubled sacrificial victims in ‘The Tenant’ are worth noting in this regard – Trelkovsky, a Pole, and Simone Choule (Simone, a common Jewish first name, and shule, the world for synagogue in Yiddish),” he writes. “Polanski’s split experience as a Jewish Pole is seemingly the key to many of the elements of alienation in his films.”
Likewise, in his article “The Atheist’s Shoah – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist,”, author Christos Tsiolkas writes that “The Tenant” captured the nature of anti-Semitism in as compelling a manner as “The Pianist.”
“There is black comedy in Trelkovsky’s endless attempts to win over the old dinosaurs in the apartment block,” he writes. “It has always struck me, nevertheless, as an interesting work and a film imbued with a sense of unnameable horror. Trelkovsky’s persecution, in its senselessness and cruel persistency, cannot help but suggest the European tragedies of World War II.”
In fact, Tsiolkas wrote that he was initially reluctant to see “The Pianist” because “Having thought that Polanski had offered a vision of persecution in ‘The Tenant’ that ably resonated with the history of anti-Semitism and World War II, I wondered what possibly could be gained in recreating the Warsaw Ghetto on film.”
In his essay “Into the Mouth of Madness: The Tenant,” writer Maximilian Le Cain sees an explicit link between Trelkovsky and Szpilman — even though one is a fictional character invented by Topor and the other is not. Anyone watching “The Pianist” who had already seen “The Tenant,” Le Cain wrote, would likely experience a “shock of recognition …. The uncanniest of many similarities — especially since ‘The Tenant’ originated from Roland Topor’s novel and ‘The Pianist’ from Szpilman’s memoir, neither original Polanski stories — is that the fugitive piano player is advised to throw himself from the window if the Gestapo raid his flat, which he at one point prepares to do.”
Like “Two Men and a Wardrobe,” “The Tenant” seems to be about a Jewish character tormented for not being like everyone else – although in both cases the reason for the bias and bigotry is never explicitly spelled out — perhaps to re-enforce Polanski’s view that being Jewish is just one of many reasons why people are victimized in society today. It could have been gays, immigrants, single women, blacks, or any number of minority groups being targeted, or sent into exile.
Conclusion
What his movies suggest is that for Polanski, Jews historically have been made to feel like Trelkovsky and Simone Choule by the dominant culture – as outsiders, cut off, ostracized, turned into social pariahs. To avoid that fate, Jews have often times throughout history been forced to collaborate with society’s greatest evils – Nazis, vampires, Satanists, street criminals, and social conformists – in order to survive. If they didn’t, Polanski suggests, they risk becoming another Trelkovsky.
It’s a deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic view of the world. But it does not, ultimately, seem far-fetched or an exaggeration of historical fact, and it represents a sad commentary on the continuing cycles of cruelty within human nature.

Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

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