IDA & THE LAST MENTSCH / Der letzte Men(t)sch

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IDA (shown in Bay Area Theaters), beautifully shot in black and white, tells the story of a young novice, not quite nun yet, in Poland around 1960, who has to confront her Jewishness before taking the vows. THE LAST MENTSCH (shown at the SFJFF) describes the journey of a concentration camp survivor who needs proof of his Jewish identity in order to get a spot at a Jewish cemetery. Both, Ida and the old man, are searching for their Jewish identity in a hostile environment.  The old man, driven by a young, impudent Turkish woman to his birth place in Hungary, needs a rabbi’s signature that confirms his Jewishness. But all he finds are officials who go by the books and do not accept either the concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm, nor his memories. They want a living Jew who can testify his identity. (No DNA testing offered to him). Ida, on her quest for her parent’s grave, is led by her aunt, a lawyer for  communist Poland, who fends off her memories of prosecution and murder with alcohol and eventually suicide in one of the most powerful performance I have seen lately.

Ida, however, chooses the convent as refuge from a the horrible past she is too young to remember and a bourgeois future with house, baby, and dog that her boyfriend is projecting for them. A jazz musician in 1960 grey Poland, playing American music in small venues, is already anticipating the “Wirtschaftswunder”.  A brief film, with a story so spare and truncated that we have to fill in half of it ourselves. Why is Ida saved when the rest of her family is slaughtered by the greedy son of the neighbor who had been their savior? We will find the answer in THE LAST MENTSCH: “There is always a survivor,” says the rabbi to the old man (portrayed impressively by 80+ year old  Mario Adorf) who has lost everybody. On his quest to find that last survivor more and more details are dug up, more and more weird characters introduced, like a Greek junk yard owner who does remember him, but he is not Jewish. Then we meet a blind woman, part sorcerer part clairvoyant, played by Hannelore Elsner. From there on things fall apart.  It all ends with the concentration camp number tattooed on the young Turkish guide’s forearm. A fashion statement for the last survivor?  Less would have been more in this film that starts out witty and focused but then tries too hard to get us emotionally geared up  by adding too much, even a T to Mentsch – I have never seen it written that way.

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SFJFF 34 Opening Night

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THE GREEN PRINCE (Jul 24, 2014 at the Castro Theatre)

A daring choice to open the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival with a documentary film (produced mostly in Germany) about Hamas & Israel  who are involved right now in another deadly war that does not seem to have an end insight. For more than 10 years Mosab Hassan Yousef , son of one of the founders of Hamas, is lured into spying on his father by Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a shrewd “handler” of the Israeli secret service. Mosab was 17 years old, loved his father, hated Israel, was arrested for an illegal weapon’s deal and ended up in the prison his father knew too well. And then something happened, Mosab was turned around to spy on his father. This crucial moment in his life unfortunately gets lost in the film. Yes, he was tortured by the Israelis, yes, he was faced with death and saw that Hamas was doing the same, ordered by his father. But something else must have happened. We can only guess. Years later when Mosab is a US citizen and Gonen, who was fired by the secret service for becoming to close to his “source” and is now enjoying family life as a lawyer in Israel, Mosab decides to go public and writes a book about  those years, the basis for the film. Director Nadav Schirman turned the book into a thriller, at least for the second half of the film when the story of the two talking heads becomes more and more dangerously entangled. I wondered how will they ever find a way out of this tangle of competing concerns, of hunting and being hunted without getting killed. We know they will survive because they are talking to us, straight into the camera, no ahh, hmm, aee, well… very fluently told as if their lines were well rehearsed or they simply are talented speakers. Shown as headshots in the same position throughout the film they are set up as being interrogated with sharp angled light casting shadows like in Dr. Caligari. “Handler” and “source” not only survive but showed up for Q&A at the Castro for another suspenseful performance. What kind of person is this Mosab, I thought, he betrayed his father, his family, spent crucial years of his life being his father’s right hand and revealing the secrets to his deadliest enemy. A life of hiding, lying, mistrusting, living with death. The father broke with his son, of course, but Gonen and Israel seem to have replaced what Mosab lost. Hmm, really? What exactly did he loose? On the stage of the Castro Theatre Mosab came across as an articulate, experienced speaker who took over the Q&A and only answered the questions he wanted. Had Jesus anything to do with his quest for peace that supposedly motivated his spying for Israel? He didn’t answer. Has he perhaps turned from Christianity (documented in the film) to Buddhism, I wondered. When he walked down the aisle to the Castro stage,  slim, trim, in t-shirt and jeans, so different from the chubby, mute informer we had just seen in archival footage, he greeted the enthusiastic crowd with palms pressed together. He is not following any religion, he said, although it would make sense. To find a human being that will ever trust him again might be difficult, but Jesus and Buddha will.

What the audiences wanted to hear in these desperate times the film, as well as  Mosab and Gonen delivered: the impossible became possible – the son of Hamas loves Israel and Israel loves him; Mosab and Gonen became closest friends; Gonen is now a happy father of three and Mosab found freedom in the US. That deserved a standing ovation.

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SomethingLiltingApprop Behav

As a member of the jury for the Outstanding First Feature Award, sponsored by the ever so generous Wells Fargo, I want to add a few personal comments to the official announcement. The amount of $7,500, attached to the winning title, should be enough for the director to jump start the next low, low budget project, or to go on a much deserved vacation with a loved one. The three jury members deliberated hard since we had different first choices. What tipped the scale toward SOMETHING MUST BREAK (left photo) was Swedish director Ester Martin Bergsmark’s fresh and powerful voice anchored by a compelling performance of Saga Becker whose stunningly beautiful features dominated the screen. R.W. Fassbinder’s “Ich will doch nur, dass ihr mich liebt,” (I only want you to love me) seemed to reverberate through this face while searching for love and acceptance.

A close second “Honorable Mention” was awarded to LILTING (center photo), Hong Khaou’s exploration of love, loss, memory, cross cultural barriers and the power of language. My favorite film of the festival – now I’m allowed to say it – is delicately wrought of past and present, depth and lightness, mourning and joy with outstanding performances by Ben Whishaw and Pei-Pei Cheng. The film will come to the movies this summer, don’t miss it.

And two more unofficial honorable mentions: APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (left photo) directed, scripted and performed in the lead role by Desiree Akhavan, who portrays a 20+ young woman trying to sort out her dysfunctional (sex)life. A familiar topic, here explored with humor and honesty, a fresh, crisp script and an engaging performance. And last not least, kudos to THE WAY HE LOOKS, the audience award winner from Brazil. Director Daniel Ribeiro expanded his short film about a teenage love triangle – one of the three is blind – into a full length feature, beautifully shot and well acted, a coming out and of age story with a twist.

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Circlephoto 1photo(1)

Here a selection of German films at this year’s Frameline festival – all in German with English subtitles and there are more than these three that I can recommend for very different reasons. Let me start with THE CIRCLE / DER KREIS ( photo left) by Swiss director Stefan Haupt, who some of you might remember from UTOPIA BLUES, the audience favorite of the 2002 Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. Throughout his career as filmmaker, Stefan Haupt has tackled a variety of topics and genres, from music film (Utopia Blues) to documenting the phases of dying of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who did exactly that in her groundbreaking work, and this recent docu-drama retelling a little known chapter of postwar gay history in Switzerland. Once I got over the fact that the actors did not resemble Röbi and Ernst, who lead us through the story (the actors should have been switched), I got into the captivating history of The Circle, a magazine and their subscribers so far ahead of what was happening elsewhere in gay circle in the late fifties. In Germany homosexuality was outlawed by infamous paragraph 175, in Switzerland a law against homosexuality was abolished in 1942 but around 1960, when Swiss authorities realized what THE CIRCLE subscribers in Zürich were up to, they cracked down on them and eventually drove them underground until the late 1990s. The love story between Röbi and Ernst closely attached to the ups and downs of THE CIRCLE finally comes to a happy end with gay marriage fully legalized in Switzerland in 2008.

Watching this film I was reminded of what happened in Switzerland during the second World War. The country had officially declared neutrality but Jews who thought to be save there, were shipped to the camps and neighbors reported Jews to the authorities. DAS BOOT IST VOLL, an Oscar nominated film from 1981, told the harrowing story. The Swiss seem to be more than just law abiding, they sense what it is that the authorities might object to and, being afraid of doing the wrong thing and being punished, become voluntary informers. After all, in 1943 they didn’t want Jews living next door and 20 years later they didn’t want gays as neighbors. In Germany, the situation was clear, there was a law and if you break the law you commit a crime. Paragraph 175 was abolished in 1988 and finally revoked altogether after unification in 1994.

OF HORSES AND MEN from Iceland still fresh in my memory, I was curious to see what veteran German filmmaker Monika Treut had to add to the majestic animals and their human companions. OF GIRLS AND HORSES is a different story. Horses are shown in their full glory – more so than in the Icelandic film – they are not sacrificed, they are treated with respect and love and, like in the Icelandic story, they bring about change, here to a troubled girl that, in the end, will find her calling and a new love. Shot by Birgit Möller, director of VALERIE, (winner of the Best First Feature of Berlin & Beyond 2008), the images immerse us into the green, flat, endless landscapes of north Germany. I got home sick watching the film – the horses, the colors, the horizons touching the sea, beautiful. The story of the troubled teenager being reigned in by an understanding and attractive female horse trainer didn’t touch me much, but the cinematography did.

FEUCHTGEBIETE / WETLANDS adapted from the bestselling novel by Charlotte Roche starts with a reader’s comment published by Bild online: “This book shouldn’t be read or adapted to film. It is not more than the mirror of our sad society. Life has much more to offer than the disgusting perversity of the human heart – We need God.” Touted as the craziest, most outrageous film at Sundance this year, WETLANDS will attract the unsqueamish, for sure. A teenage girl’s fascination with bodily fluids and odors leads us through vulgar anatomical explorations and sexual misadventures. Director David Wnendt picked the right face for this unusual tour de force, the innocent, cute looking Swiss actress Carla Juri. Wnendt’s first feature, the haunting neo-Nazi drama DIE KRIEGERIN /COMBAT GIRL, catapulted Alina Levshin into stardom, and rightly so. That he continued his directing career with WETLANDS came to many as a big surprise, but again, Wnendt made a big splash, only this time with very different fluids.

More to come about narrative features eligible for the Best First Feature Award — lots of great ones not to be missed.


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The Galapagos Affairphoto 3

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The International Film Festival ended a few weeks ago and I only saw a few films that I picked because of country–Iceland, language–Spanish, title–Happiness. There was much more that piqued my interest and, mea culpa for not trying harder, perhaps with granddaughter snuggled up on my arms it would have worked just fine. Let me start my comments with THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN, because it is about crazy Germans, a film shown in SF theaters during the festival by local filmmakers Daniel Geller and Danya Goldfine. I had expected beautiful shots of the islands, of birds, turtles perhaps even Darwin’s stop at the Galapagos, but the filmmakers did not go that way. They focused on what the German couple experienced when they escaped Berlin of the late twenties to live in solitude and barren nature. Looking for Eden they soon found more like-minded people who brought with them what everybody had hoped to escape: trouble. The story turned into a murder mystery that took too long to be solved. We knew the culprits early on and didn’t need everybody’s view of what might have happened. I would have preferred to hear more about the island, what was growing there, what did the Germans plant for daily food supplies, who was living there before them. The limited archival footage had to cover four years of the adventure(1930-34) in a long two hour film. Less would have been more.

Next: Iceland, another remote island. I went there two years ago and loved every bit of it. Did ride the horses, almost got stuck in quick sand, but my strong, little horse made it.

OF HORSES AND MEN, a German co-production – reminiscent of OF MONSTERS AND MEN, an Icelandic pop group, is an homage to the horses, not the men. The horses are used as mirrors for human failures and then punished for it. It is all presented with a light touch, we can laugh about it but still, the horses are castrated and killed to save man in his pursuit for alcohol, sex and horseback riding. In the final scenes, however, the horses are paraded in their full beauty.

CLUB SANDWICH, by Fernando Eimbcke from Mexico City, was supposed to help my Spanish – 3 weeks before the final of Spanish 10c I took at City College. Alas, I didn’t understand a thing, although there was very little dialog in the film. Mother and 15 year old son spoke little and always the same few sentences, but still hard to grasp. Dialect, said my Mexican friend, who had a hard time to understand himself. I was glad. The film was slow, very slow and I like slow films. But something has to happen inside my head to prevent me from getting bored. And I got bored. A mother who could not let go of her son. Shot in the same low budget hotel with no extras around except for an even more taciturne family that arrived half way through with a 14 year old daughter that is active enough to take the son away from his mother. The film was shot on 35mm but shown in a digital format, too bad 35mm projection might have saved it.

HAPPINESS, a touching, poignant statement about civilization, progress and misguided happiness. Beautiful Bhutan, simple people attracted to what many of us have tried to get rid of: TV. The final shots of the film, a European co-proction for ARTE, will stay with you for a long time: a poor family in the high mountains of Bhutan, with open, smiling faces, lots of missing teeth, shiny, black hair that hasn’t been washed in ages, sitting in front of a TV, watching an American ballgame, not understanding a thing but HAPPY.


Ground Zero pools

Ground Zero

Below Dreams

Below Dreams







BELOW DREAMS, a film that my daughter Milena shot, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival when I happened to be there in April. Lucky mom. I had just seen the new memorial built on Ground Zero, walked between glitzy highrises and dark pools that sucked in, not just water but the dreams dreamed in the two towers that once stood above. The title of the film I was about to see could not have been more fitting for the memorial. BELOW DREAMS is a first feature directed by Garrett Bradley, a multimedia artist, who took us on a road trip from New York to New Orleans where three young people tried to put together their shattered dreams. A mother of three, homeless, jobless, wants to be an actress. A black man would would take any job offered to him, and a twenty-something man from New York who arrives by Greyhound in search of his girl friend. Gritty, rough images alternate with long shots of a sunset behind a gas station, or the mother’s distraught look into an uncertain future. A small gem that might not end up in movie theatres but in the New York Times and other print media that noticed it’s beauty.

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Generation War 8Generation War 5 Generation War 6 Generation War 1


It was easy to miss the week-long run of GENERATION WAR. It screened for a week at Embarcadero and then no place else in the Bay Area. For the US release by Music Box, the hugely successful TV (ZDF) mini series, originally called Our Mothers, Our Fathers, was edited into a 2 part 280 min-long film. A war movie with all the great production values we are used to by now; perhaps with the “best representation of close combat ever filmed” says David Denby of the New Yorker. We follow five young Germans, 2 brothers fighting in the Wehrmacht, a nurse, an aspiring singer, and her Jewish lover, through 4 years of war and witness how they are brutalized by what the war on the Eastern front and the Nazis put them through. Three of them survive, including the Jew. A WW2 film trying to give a collective portrait of a generation, highly acclaimed by the German media for opening up a dialog between old and young about accountability and forgiveness. I hope it did. I would have preferred a documentary addressing these issues that are so painful, so complex, so explosive that it calls for much more than a popular melodrama like approach. The film includes every possible horror of the war, from close combat to executions, hangings, betrayals, to partisan cruelties and field hospitals with lots of screaming and blood. Nothing has been left out – except concentration camps. The 5 protagonists celebrate in Berlin the night before leaving for the front and we know that at least a few will survive and come back to that same bar, changed and in rubble. On the vast Eastern front they keep bumping into each other. The brothers, one a bookish war hater turns into a killer, whereas the responsible, stern lieutenant becomes a deserter. The young Jew hides in the woods with Jew-hating Polish partisans and survives against all odds – it makes for good story, but we don’t get much inside into the only Jewish character in the film. The roles of the two women, a naive nurse that for no apparent reason betrays a Jewish doctor urgently needed at the front, and the singer, carrying on with an SS officer to save her Jewish lover and advance her career, are bordering on trite stereotypes. Five hours of too much that left me with too little.

Very different is WEISSENSEE, a TV (ARD) series of 12 episodes. 45 min ea. that premiered in 2010.

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An East-Berlin love story, taking place around 1980 and flavored with everything we know from The Lives of Others, focuses on two families at the opposite end of the political scope. The Kupfers main players are the father (Uwe Kockisch) belonging to the old Stasi bosses who wanted to change society for the better. His two sons, the older (Jörg Hartmann) following the party line faithfully not because his father knows Honecker, but because he is overly ambitious and can’t deal with failure. In different times he would have made a great bank manager. The younger brother (Florian Lukas), a police man (VoPo), has no intention to rise in his job except into the arms of his lover (Hannah Herzsprung), who belongs to the Hausmann family on the other side of the fence. Her mother (Katrin Sass), a wonderful Lieder-singer, who like many of the GDR Liedermachers in the late seventies (Wolf Biermann comes to mind) openly critiques the system. With a rebellious daughter who is in love with the son and brother of party bosses, with performing anti-regime songs and a former love affair with the father of her daughter’s lover, the question is, how will she and her daughter have to pay for it all. Like Generation War, the story depends on conventions of popular melodrama – a Romeo/Julia love story, contrasting brothers, a singer, betrayal, pregnancy, spying, murder, prison, forgiveness – but no painful clichés, no obvious good guys versus bad guys, all characters, even the party-faithfuls, do not come across as creations of a smart script writer, but as humans who, under pressure, do not resist the temptation to be human. Once you start watching, you can’t stop. Too bad that this series has not made it to the big screen in the US.

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A shuttle bus from Drakes Beach visitor center drops you off less than half a mile from the Point Reyes lighthouse. Walking under storm-bent fir trees with views of beautiful beaches, featuring elephant seals fighting for the best place in the sun (or fog), you come to the top of 302 steps leading down to the historic lighthouse. Built in the 1860s with the latest lens technology (Fresnel lens from France) it started operating in 1870 and has not changed until it was decommissioned in 1975. A windy spot, often so foggy that many ships could not be saved by the powerful beacon, but many crews members got rescued by the coastguards on duty. Today the lens is replaced by a solar powered beacon located below the lighthouse. Going up the 302 step is a workout that will justify a delicious lunch at Drakes Bay Oyster farm. It was a bit chilly but you quickly forget when slurping piles of fresh oysters, and close the meal with local cheeses from Nicasio Valley. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of wine and sign the petition to save the oyster farm from government take-over.

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Ludwig II

Shores of Hope


Measuring the World

At the Berlin & Beyond film festival in the beautiful Castro Theatre, my old stomping ground. Friday night’s program in a packed house started with plenty of long speeches followed by a short live performance of a Wagner song to introduce LUDWIG II, the centerpiece piece film. Good to be reminded that without Ludwig Bayreuth, which was not mentioned in the film, might never have been built. Veteran director Peter Sehr, who died of brain tumor shortly after the release of this film, focused on Ludwig, the pacifist, who hated politics and loved art, music and, of course, Wagner. The 2.5 hrs long film felt long, although it was fascinating to watch Sabin Tambrea’s dexterous portrayal of young Ludwig. No time was wasted with the construction of the castles, all stages of mad Ludwig’s life up to his mysterious death in Starnberger See at the side of his physician were included. Still, something was missing, or less might have been more, as the Dubini brothers demonstrated in their Ludwig 1881, shown at B&B 97. Perhaps Visconti and Syberberg are simply hard acts to follow.

SHORES OF HOPE /Wir wollten aufs Meer, by Toke Constantin Hebbeln (his wonderful debut film NEVERMORE was shown at B&B 2007), tells the story of friendship and betrayal among shipyard workers in East Germany. Stasi surveillance, torture in State prisons, good inmates, bad guards and even worse Stasi officers, love and lies, all that felt like it could have been a film about the Holocaust. Ever since The Life of Others hit the screen films about life in East Germany often became interchangeable with Holocaust films. SHORES OF HOPE is one of them. I much preferred watching the German TV series WEISSENSEE about the same topic with a more sensitive and clever story. A very different and more compelling way to approach the subject is shown in WEST by Christian Schwochow (his debut film NOVEMBER CHILD was screened at B&B 09). After having lost the man she loved and the father of her child, Nelly tries to escape from the past and start a new life in the West which turns out to be much more difficult than expected. Not only is she confronted with the usual humiliations but with the suspicion to be a spy and accusations that turn everybody around her, even the man she loved, into a suspect. Is there no escape from the past? Powerful, touching, with great performances, especially by Jördis Triebel (Nelly) who some might remember from EMMAS GLÜCK.

MEASURING THE WORLD concluded my B&B weekend. I love the book by Daniel Kehlmann and was warned that the film does not hold up to it. I agree but it was not a waste of time. Kehlmann, the screenwriter, was not able to translate the insightful, historically rich and often hilarious interaction between Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt onto screen. Two scientists, albeit geniuses, do not make for a compelling film. Nature becomes the third major player in this 3D film, which reminded me of THE WALL, another difficult translation from book to film that worked well because the breath taking Alps featured as companion and counterpoint for the lonely woman. Here it is uncharted territory in Latin America around the turn of the 18th century that keeps the story alive.

I would have liked to see the amazing cinematography of MORE THAN HONEY on the big screen of the Castro – it was shown at the Goethe-Institut. The Q&A with Christian Schwochow after WEST could have been longer (there were many more questions and plenty of time), but I remember how difficult it is to please everybody.

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I saw a few German or German-language films, over the last months, all of them award winners, critically acclaimed or included in a film series here in San Francisco. OH BOY was an add-on and the only German film, I noticed, at the Mill Valley Film Festival; DER FALL the opening film of Sister Cities: Zürich-San Francisco, presented by the SF Film Society; ZWEI LEBEN, Germany’s Oscar bid, and THE TASTE OF APPLE SEEDS with its high profile cast opened in German movie houses this September. DER FALL, a Swiss film from 1972, that never made it into the international festival circuit – thus not subtitled until its screening in SF a few weeks ago – will be pretty impossible to find. A black and white film taking place in a grey, cold Zürich full of unattractive industrial buildings and train tracks – not the Zürich we know with perfectly restored old houses around a beautiful lake with high-end designer stores where even Oprah is tempted to shop. It is a Zürich populated with failures, hippies (who don’t smoke – my friend noticed that nobody was smoking in this film from 1972), sick people, jealous husbands, and a pathetic private detective who makes his living snooping around other people’s lives. When he falls for a young chick that has already destroyed at least one marriage, the detective is doomed. Why is he attracted to her? God only knows, I couldn’t figure it out.

ZWEI LEBEN kept me glued to the screen. A twisted story about a mother (Liv Ullmann) who thinks that the young woman she has been living with (Juliane Köhler) is her daughter. There are many movies about unknown fathers but mothers would know, we think, unless their babies have been switched in the hospital. Here the mix-up points at disturbing politics of both, Nazi and Stasi Germany . Great performances by both Köhler and Ullman. A complicated beginning – because the plot is complicated – and an ending that seemed too constructed, but altogether a powerful film. — DER GESCHMACK VON APFELKERNEN, with an impressive cast of Germany’s best – Hannah Herzsprung, Marie Bäumer, Meret Becker, Florian Stetter. They had too many stories to tell covering too many generations, places, relationships. I gave up after the first half hour to figure out what was going on and got bored. — And last but not at all least OH BOY, Tom Schilling’s 80 minute screen appearance. He must have been in almost every shot but it didn’t feel forced, boring or overpowering like Michael Gwisdek’s soliloquy – well articulated although drunk – about life and death and politics. Schilling’s face is innocent, young, honest, not changing much while we accompany him over 24hours through Berlin. Yes, it has been done before, many times, but this film felt fresh and touching, like a deep breath of Berliner Luft.

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The Périgord Noir was my destination. Known for its food (foie gras, truffles, black walnuts) & wine (Bergerac red and white), its prehistoric caves (Lascaux, les Eyzies) , and unspoiled nature with the Dordogne and Vézère meandering through green valleys, it’s a must for Francophiles and foodies. Yes, I wanted to try the local specialties, but liver of tortured geese and ducks? As soon as I mentioned San Francisco as my home, I was assured that the birds are treated fairly in the process of producing the famed liver that ended up in my suitcase. And when I left Bergerac I had to promise at customs to drink good French wine with it in CA, otherwise only one small can would be allowed. Yes, I promised. No coke, no sprite. Everything in the Vézère area seemed ancient and beautiful. Our hang-out, St. Léon sur Vézère, had a church from the 10th century with amazing acoustics, three fabulous restaurants and a tiny grocery store with the best French wines and cheeses. — The caves in les Eyzies and Rouffignac show an impressive array of 12 to 17 thousand-year-old paintings and drawings of auroches, horses, deer, very much like the art we know from Werner Herzog’s film about Chauvet which dates back to 35 thousand years ago. The same style, the same animals, the same colors but different artists who could not have known each other. Fifteen thousand years of unchanged art and unchanged life. I felt claustrophobic but also a bit nostalgic in this very slow moving world and did not mind that the Grotte de Rouffignac had just closed for lunch when we arrived at noon.

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Krakow: old, beautiful, relaxed. Lots of churches, cafés, parks, open spaces. We stayed at Helena Rubinstein’s birth place in the heart of the Jewish Quarter across from the Jewish cemetery and the only active synagogue that serves the remaining 10,000 Jews in Krakow. All three of these locations are tourist attractions, together with Schindler’s Factory. Helena’s family left Krakow in 1914. Not far from the Jewish Quarter is the castle, the old town square with cafés, an old market place now catering to tourists, and churches on every street corner. The best place for food is an outdoor market that serves roasted sausages, pig’s feet, ears, ribs, and whatever else a pig has to offer. Good luck for vegetariens — but there will always be borscht. Poland’s history has been a sad one, many divisions, take-overs by aggressive neighbors like Russia, Germany, Austria. Only recently did the Poles produce their own heroes to be proud of — Pope John Paul II, of course, former Bishop of Krakow, and Lech Walesa, charismatic political activist and leader of the trade union Solidarity, that helped turn around Polish history. Andrzej Wajda’s latest film, an homage to Walesa, premiered in a huge industrial compound outside of Krakow and I was lucky to be present. Wajda (85 years old and sick, according to his wife) couldn’t make it, nor Walesa or his family joined the three thousand plus crowd that watched the film and applauded reluctantly. That’s the Polish way, commented a friend, they don’t overflow with enthusiasm. Or did they – like me – not like the film?

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SEPTEMBER TRAVELS: Poland – Auschwitz






Pick up at the hotel at 11am, return at 7pm. A tour to Auschwitz with about 20 people in our bus from six different countries. Throughout the 70 minute bus ride a DVD of the 1986 film THE LIBERATION OF AUSCHWITZ, by Irmgard von zur Mühlen, in Polish with English subtitles. I felt sick when we finally arrived, the film had done its job. We were assigned to the language we had requested. There were about 20 different ones offered every day and while the organizers ran around calling and waving signs and putting stickers on our jacket not to get lost in the turmoil of visitors pouring out of huge tour busses, the film I had just seen, faded away and last year’s visit to King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria came to my mind. Was I visiting a Polish Museum with a permanent blockbuster exhibition? “The tour starts in 5 minutes, ” announced a young woman. “It will last about 90 minutes. Bathrooms are downstairs, drinks and small snacks can be purchased and must be consumed before the tour starts. No eating on the compound.” Everybody stormed downstairs for the toilets. Long lines. Finally, equipped with headphones that allowed you to receive only the German guide if you pressed the correct channel, our small German group, passing masses of English, Spanish and Polish speaking visitors, headed for the infamous sign, Arbeit macht frei. Rows of barracks, Blocks, built of brick, numbers above the entrance. Some turned into exhibition space with walls covered of head shots and names, all Polish. Suitcases, brushes, shoes, and hair, real hair, behind glass, hand written letters to loved ones. Instead of tears cameras in front of the visitors’ eyes. Click, click. Then to the next Block. Our guide talked fast, a routine job. No time for questions. The last Block, the prison, where people were interrogated, tortured, killed no photos allowed, only outside at the wall that still seemed to show traces of blood from the countless executions. — End of the Auschwitz tour. Next stop Birkenau. Only 10 kilometers away but too far for most of the tour busses. Vast, empty fields of long barracks built for 100 000 prisoners. Most barracks destroyed by the Nazis themselves to cover up their crimes. We walked along the train tracks, stood at the ramp where those found fit to work were separated from their children and parents. The gas chambers not far from the ramp. It was a rainy, grey afternoon and all I could think of was the huge machinery behind the horror, that was necessary to make it all work. Thousands of people were involved in organizing and executing this machine made for human beings that were treated like cattle, like material. Fit for work or not. And the unfit were killed in the most efficient way or used for horrific experiments. Whatever the Germans do, they do well. No more comments.


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