Friday, May 28, 2010

"Lisa" 1962 v. "Everything is Illuminated" 2005

Comparison of two Holocaust-themed films. "Lisa" aka "The Inspector," 1962.
Starring: Stephen Boyd, most famous as the ruggedly handsome, flamboyantly evil Messala in "Ben Hur."

Dolores Hart, most famous as the first to kiss Elvis onscreen, subsequently left Hollywood to become a cloistered nun. (Perhaps he'd just eaten a fried peanut-butter-banana-bacon sandwich.)

"Lisa" is an old, creaky, cheesy, politically incorrect film. It sexualizes the Holocaust and titillates; Lisa has no Jewish-coded traits; she isn't even an obvious survivor. She's perky as a surfer girl.

"Everything is Illuminated" was made in 2005, after we all became enlightened. It's based on a book that was embraced and celebrated by the elite as the greatest thing since sliced rye bread.

"Lisa" is the better film.

"Everything is Illuminated" sucks. And it plays the Bieganski card.

Amazon reviews:

I saw "Lisa" exactly one time, many decades ago, when I was a kid. I watched it on a black and white TV, late at night, interrupted by many annoying commercials. I've never forgotten "Lisa": Dolores Hart played a Holocaust survivor determined, by any means necessary, to get to Palestine at a time when the British were interdicting such arrivals. Ruggedly handsome Stephen Boyd was Inspector Jongman. He began by hindering Lisa's pilgrimage and ended up helping her. For comic relief, there was Hugh Griffith, a smuggler who used a tennis racket in his ongoing battle with the bats that invaded his exotic Tangiers apartment at dusk.
Most importantly, I never shook the feeling that the film aroused in me - this film literally made me sick, and terrified, but it also moved and inspired me.

In the intervening years, I read somewhere that "Lisa" was an early attempt to depict the Holocaust in a mainstream Hollywood movie. That just increased my curiosity. Some kind soul has finally posted "Lisa" on youtube and I watched it there.

The title sequence appears over train tracks, rushing rapidly beneath the camera. This allusion to trains rushing to concentration camps felt heavy-handed. The film opens in 1946. Lisa is the pouty, passive cargo of a Nazi white slaver. There's some implausible cloak and dagger stuff - the daggers are SS, engraved "blood and honor" - and for sale by the Nazi white slaver, a villain with obviously dyed blonde hair and an obviously fake German accent. The Nazi dies; Lisa escapes via a fire escape; investigators suspect that Inspector Jongman murdered the Nazi. The chase / road movie is on. Lisa and Jongman begin a cat-and-mouse odyssey, via Dutch canal barge and smuggler ship, to Palestine.

After my decades-long wait to see "Lisa" again, these opening scenes disappointed me. I thought, "Gee, we've come a long way since 1962. This ain't no "Schindler's List." Lisa is merely an object. The Nazi controls her; the good Dutch man wants her. She volunteered to go with the Nazi, stupidly falling for his lie that he would smuggle her to Palestine. And Lisa is obviously NOT Jewish. Dolores Hart was famously Catholic; she's got bright blue eyes and blond hair. English, Irish, and American actors try, or don't, to speak with slipping and sliding Dutch, German, or Arabic accents.

Lisa is a survivor of medical experimentation at Auschwitz. She had been used "Like a cadaver" in gynecological training. Jongman wants to help Lisa because he had failed to help Rachel, his Jewish fiancee. The Holocaust is translated from genocide into a titillating morals charge or the plot twist in a risque romance novel. Though the center of this crime against women is a woman, Lisa, the film is really all about the men around her: Jongman, the Nazi, the police chasing them, the colorful smugglers aiding them, exploiting them, or ripping them off.

I kept watching, though, and in spite of all the problems, I rediscovered the movie that had so moved me years ago. Lisa's blondeness and American style add to the horror, in the same way that Jeanne Crain's whiteness added to the impact of "Pinky." Casting a white woman as a victim of Jim Crow, or a Catholic as a Jew, emphasizes that there is no logic nor justice to racism. We humans really ARE one race, and none of us can rely on our putative racial identity, or our physical features, for immunity.

As Bowsley Crowther pointed out in his New York Times review, the film's "Lurid" advertisements are not representational of the film's "decent" and "asexual" content. In any case, Lisa's intimate victimization, and her literal sterility, economically and powerfully communicate the Nazis' sadism and nihilism.

There is a scene in this movie that I have never forgotten. Though, in the intervening years, I've seen too much graphic violence, I was afraid to re-watch this scene. Lisa describes how she was used as a medical display. In her flashback, all you see is what Lisa saw: the overheard medical lamps, and doctors' eyes staring at her clinically, as if she were, indeed, a cadaver. Lisa concludes her flashback by saying, "I wanted to say to them, we are people, we are human beings." The scene includes no special effects. It is one of the most high-impact Holocaust scenes, or depictions of dehumanization, that I've ever seen.

Lisa has been betrayed by the world. She survives by telling herself that Palestine is that somewhere-over-the-rainbow that can restore her will to live. Her goal and her intensity are palpable, both poignant and steely.

Dolores Hart is something to behold. She radiates rare beauty and depth. She and Boyd develop genuine chemistry; you come to care about their fate. Robert Stephens, in a small part as an Englishman who is, alternately, oafish, cloying, threatening, and moving, punctuates the final act of the film. There is an ideological smuggler, Brown, who wants to use Lisa to his own purposes; this subplot underlines how sometimes the highest ideals can inspire exploitative behavior. The theme of noble sacrifice is believable and moving.

"Lisa" is based on Jan de Hartog's novel. He was the son of a Dutch minister and a convert to Quakerism. As a child he ran away, and lived on barges. During the war he aided in the hiding of Jewish babies; he hid from the Nazis disguised as a woman. Dolores Hart, who plays Lisa, left Hollywood at the height of her career to become a cloistered nun.

*** *** ***

"Everything is Illuminated" is an embarrassingly bad stinker on almost every count, with two exceptions: Eugene Hutz is weirdly, wildly charismatic as Alex, a goofy young Ukrainian who imagines himself a hip-hop star.
And "Everything Is Illuminated"'s score is excellent, consisting, as it does, of authentic Eastern European folk music.

The first half of "Everything is Illuminated" consists of g-rated versions of "Borat" jokes. Ukrainians are funny because they try to be cool like Americans. Ukrainians are laughable because they speak English in a simple-minded pidgin, calling "African Americans" "Negroes," for example, and saying "repose" for "sleep." Ukrainians are funny because of their sex lives. Ukrainians are also dirty, irrationally and by nature violent, they hate Jews, they wear unattractive clothing; the men are ready to beat up any newcomer to their town naïve enough to ask for driving directions; the women are either cowed housewives married to husbands and fathers who lead with their fists, or slatternly, sullen, obese waitresses; goat-herding Ukrainian children engage in mindless vandalism like flattening car tires. These folks are so debased that even their dogs are ugly, stupid, and vicious. Yup, there's even a creepy household pet. Of course these comically stupid, ugly, crude yokels are responsible for the Holocaust. At one point, Elijah Wood, as Jonathan Safran Foer, insists that the Ukraine was as bad as Nazi Germany.

This nasty stereotype is not the invention of Liev Schreiber, the director and script writer. Schreiber and Safran Foer, the author of the book on which the film is based, are merely exploiting, not inventing, hateful ethnic stereotypes. The image of the brutal Eastern European peasant has been around for centuries. Americans are most familiar with this stereotype from Polak jokes and the film "Borat."

Eugene Hutz is genuinely funny in his thankless, Eastern European "Amos-and-Andy" -style role. He acts the Ukrainian dunce with as much grace and dignity as possible, and is the only thing worth watching in the film. Some scenes are laugh out loud funny, especially when Wood lectures Hutz on the use of the term "African American." But "Amos and Andy" was funny, too.

After about an hour of Bohunk jokes, "Everything is Illuminated" abruptly turns off the comedy tap and turns into a turgid, static Holocaust film. What little action there was in the film, provided by Hutz's kinetic mugging, shuffling, and jiving, or by Ukrainians punching other Ukrainians, stops. Characters stand still and offer speeches about horrible things that happened in the past. Jonathan and Alex arrive at the one pleasant house, with the one dignified resident, in all of Ukraine. The colorful cottage is out of a Disney fairy tale. Clean laundry snaps on the line. Orderly rows of sunflowers surround the home. The peasant woman living in the cottage is gracious and lovely. Aha. She's not really Ukrainian. She's Jewish.

On the other hand, Elijah Wood, as Jonathan Safran Foer, a modern American Jew, comes off no better than the stereotyped Ukrainians. He, too, is a stereotype: the uptight, obsessional, neurotic, socially backward, weak, frightened, passive Jew. Wood, as Jonathan, is so stiff he could be playing a corpse. A writer and director should have a very sound aesthetic reason for making the Jewish character in a film about the Holocaust a passive Jew. Schreiber has no good reason. He's just playing two stereotypes against each other, insisting that one needn't learn anything from one of the most horrendous crimes in history in order to make a film about it. Given that there is a very self-destructive death of another Jewish character in the movie, Wood's passivity is even more troubling.

The Holocaust is never honored by "Everything Is Illuminated." In the unlikely event that this is the only Holocaust film the viewer ever sees, that viewer would have no idea what the Holocaust was. As slow, pretentious, and ponderous as this film is, it never for one moment manages to convey the monumental horror and heartbreak of the Holocaust.

Again, I'd love to see Eugene Hutz in just about any new film; meanwhile, I've been watching youtube videos of his band, "Gogol Bordello." Hutz sings and dances like a man who has vowed to live fast, play hard, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.


  1. I've never seen Lisa, and I'm not sure how I did. You make it sound like absolutely like a movie I need to see. I'll see if netflix has it.

    Everything Illuminated? I'm not so sure. I read the novel, and wasn't convinced. The narrative voice sounded posturing--a lot of "look at me/look at me."

    1. Hi, "Lisa" was put up on in 11 installments. (Each one is about 9 minutes each). I just watched the movie last night and I absolutely loved it!

  2. John, please understand that "Lisa" was a sentimental favorite for me. I'm not claiming it as high art. So, I hope you don't expect it to be GREAT or ART. It moved me. I don't know if others would be impressed by it.

    Dolores Hart is really something, though. Forget her immortal soul; I wish she had remained an actress! (Not really ... but she just had a huge amount of charisma and depth that bleeds right through the screen and compensates for any failings in the movie.)

    I'm reading Jan de Hartog's book now. Had to get it from interlibrary loan -- some library in Colorado had the original fifty cent bantam paperback. So far, the novel is pretty icky.

    John, if you feel like it, tell me if "Everything is Illuminated" the novel also exploits the dumb Bohunk stereotype.

  3. sammy davis junior junior juniorJuly 5, 2010 at 12:03 PM

    You extol Hutz but then you criticize the film because of Hutz's character, claiming that the film thereby stereotypes Ukrainians.

    Uh, isn't Hutz's character Jewish as it turns out?

    Indeed, much of Hutz's character comes from Hutz's characterization he puts into it.

    Hutz, in "real" life likes to fancy himself a gypsy but most gypsies, when he sought them out a few years back, tolerated him at best while others condemned him outright as shown in the biographical film about the experience.

    Sorry. Loved the book, loved the film, love Gogol Bordello, still cognizant that Hutz expropriates Romany culture for his own - laudible in my eyes - purposes.

  4. Sammy Davis Junior Junior Junior, Thanks for your comment.

    (The poster names himself/herself after the ugly dog.)

    "claiming that the film thereby stereotypes Ukrainians"

    I really don't see how anyone could watch this movie, and know much of anything about pop culture and even high culture in the West, and argue that it doesn't stereotype not just Ukrainians, but all Bohunks.

    But I'm open to hearing your case, if you want to make one.

    "Sorry. Loved the book, loved the film"

    No need to apologize but -- did you really love this film? Really???

    I do find that hard to believe.

    But variety is the spice of life.

    "isn't Hutz's character Jewish as it turns out"

    The way that that works out just supports the point. It is revealed that Hutz's grandfather was a Jew trying to pass as a Ukrainian. To pass as a Ukrainian, he had to pose as a virulent anti-Semitic slob.

    Doesn't that just say so much?

    Once the family discovers their partial Jewish roots, they are transformed from t-shirt wearing, chaotic, violent, Ukrainian slobs into suit-wearing, respectable citizens.

    I mean, come on.

  5. sammy davis jr. jr. jrJuly 11, 2010 at 11:17 PM

    Somehow I harbor the impression that anti-Semitism was even more virulent in the Ukraine than in Poland.

    I don't recall anyone in the film indicating that the grandpa was a slob. And I never got that impression of his character. Maybe that says something about the family I grew up with or about me. And was his personna, even at the beginning of the film really all that *virulently* anti-Semitic?

    Did Hutz's father wear a t-shirt? The mother? Hutz's character was more like a Shantel - cool as they come - google him on youtube if you haven't heard of him).

    Why are folks who wear t-shirts slobs and folks who wear suits respectable citizens? Y'see, I've always held the exact opposite impression. But that's me.

    And when in the film did Hutz start wearing a suit? I'll have to look at it again. Maybe he did at the end but I don't recall.

    And the dog was my favorite character and he wasn't that ugly at the end of the film. He even grew on Frodo.

  6. "anti-Semitism was even more virulent in the Ukraine than in Poland"

    "Even more virulent than in Poland."

    Poles are the gold standard of antisemitism in popular and academic discourse.

    Polish ethnicity, not antisemitism, is the problem in this worldview.

    Thanks for demonstrating why the book "Bieganski" exists.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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