AJFF What to Watch: Films About Heroes Part 1

05/26/2020

Heroes and heroic measures are central in this mix of narratives and documentaries that were formerly featured at AJFF's annual festival. All are true stories. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Against the Tide
From Moriah Films, the Academy Award-winning documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, comes this scating indictment of U.S. indifference to the Holocaust. At the heart of this historical examination is Peter Bergson, a young Zionist firebrand who challenged the isolationism of the Roosevelt administration and American Jewish organizations. Through a never before seen 1977 interview, Bergson provides a first-hand account of his success in attracting the support of non-Jewish congressmen and Hollywood personalities, even as establishment leaders resisted action to stop the Nazi slaughter over fears of both a backlash of anti-Semitism and potential perception of a "Jewish war." This documentary, featured at the 2010 AJFF, is both heroic and heart-wrenching juxtaposing Bergson's dogged activism with the doomed Jews of Europe who mistakenly put their faith in America. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman.

Follow Me: The Jonathan Netanyahu Story
This poignant biography looks at modern-day hero Yonatan Netanyahu, an elite army commando killed in Operation Entebbe and brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shuttling among milestones of his short but fascinating life, the film draws on the soldier’s own prophetic writings that reveal deep-rooted introspection, human frailty and heartfelt passions. The journey comes to a fateful crossroads in July 1976 as Netanyahu leads an audacious raid to rescue Israeli hostages from a hijacked flight at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. Newly revealed archival materials and interviews with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Yoni’s ex-wife Tuti Goodman, feature prominently. Featured at the 2012 AJFF.

Max Schmeling
This viscerally entertaining epic biopic profiles the iconic German boxer whose tightrope efforts to distance himself from the Nazi Party and later acts of righteousness made him an improbable hero. The film charts the rise of the World Heavyweight Champion, his marriage to glamorous Czech-born actress Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and the highly symbolic matches against African-American Joe Lewis, propagandist fodder to make Schmeling an Aryan Superman. Despite political pressures, Schmeling refuses to break ties with Jewish manager Joe Jacobs and trainer Max Machon (delightful performances by Vladimir Weigl and Heino Ferch), and later hides two Jewish teenagers during Kristallnacht. Olympic boxer Henry Maske underwent eight months of acting coaching for his debut role as the onscreen Schmeling. Featuring handsome widescreen cinematography, the film also boasts extended authentic boxing sequences impressively staged by director Uwe Boll. Featured at the 2012 AJFF.

Orchestra of Exiles
The extraordinary backstory of the Israeli Philharmonic and the heroic feats of its founder, Polish virtuoso violinist Bronisław Huberman, are chronicled in this documentary featured at the 2013 AJFF. As Hitler began forcing Jews out of the great European orchestras, Huberman recognized an opportunity. He scoured to find 70 of the best Jewish musician outcasts, wrangled with immigration authorities to move them and their families to Palestine, and assembled what would become the Palestine Orchestra that debuted in December 1936 under the baton of anti-Fascist Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. Through Huberman’s efforts and vision, some 1,000 lives were saved from the oncoming Nazi menace, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was later born in 1948. Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Josh Aronson, the film was filmed on location in Germany, Israel, the United States and England, and features historical reenactments as well as interviews with music icons Pinchas Zukerman, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell.

Süskind
The gripping true story of a Jewish industrialist who saved hundreds of Dutch children from the death camps is recounted in this lavish award-winning WWII drama. Actor Jeroen Spitzenberger brings magnetism and gravitas to the role of Walter Süskind, the German-born protagonist who flees to Amsterdam as the Nazis begin institutionalizing anti-Semitism, and as a member of the Dutch resistance movement, influences the fate of Jewish deportees. Joining the local Jewish Council charged with the devil’s work of overseeing the orderly transfer of fellow Jews, Süskind exploits his position to protect his family and maneuver some 600 children to safety. When a weak-minded SS commandant played by Karl Markovics realizes that his cat-and-mouse friendship with Süskind has been betrayed, the Nazis ruthlessly exact revenge. Featured at the 2013 AJFF.

Triangle: Remembering the Fire
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle factory fire, this HBO production details the sad, heroic and outrageous details behind the worst pre-9/11 workplace disaster in New York history, which killed 146 garment workers, many of them young, female Jewish immigrants. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, flames rapidly consumed everything within the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building. Literally locked inside the upper floors by management, most victims were burned alive or forced to jump to their deaths. The tragedy spurred widespread reforms, including support for unionized labor and workplace safety standards. Emmy-winning documentarian Daphne Pinkerson honors the memories of those who perished through never-before-seen photographs and heartfelt oral histories. Narrated by Tovah Feldshuh, this documentary, featured at the 2012 AJFF, serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for the dignity of all working people.

Who Will Write Our History
Determined to defeat Nazi lies with pen and paper, an underground movement of Jewish intellectuals carries out an extraordinary form of wartime resistance, in this documentary featured at the 2019 AJFF. Days after being sealed in the Warsaw Ghetto's squalor, a clandestine band of journalists, scholars and leaders chose to resist. Led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum (with the code name Oyneg Shabes), they write tirelessly, creating a record of the Holocaust, which would survive even if they did not. Their extraordinary letters, confessionals, poems and photographs, buried in milk cans and metal boxes, were retrieved after the war. This cache is a penetrating window into every aspect of life and death in the Ghetto. Acclaimed filmmakers Roberta Grossman and Nancy Spielberg combine new interviews, rarely seen footage, stunning dramatizations, as well as diary excerpts voiced by actors Adrien Brody and Joan Allen, to honor these heroic stewards of historical preservation.