Friday, July 29, 2011

'In Another Lifetime' at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

When you’re giving an account of the holocaust, there can never be too many stories. There can never be too many accounts of memory, or too many artistic renditions of it. There can perhaps never be too many books, novels, and films. Every once in a while, though, there will be a story that pops out among these because it says something unusual or unexpected. It wears the same heavy cloak of human tragedy all the other stories wear, but it also gives us a refreshing glimpse of creativity. I saw one such film at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Elisabeth Scharang’s In Another Lifetime (2010).
An Austro-Hungarian co-production, In Another Lifetime is the story of a group of Hungarian Jews being marched to a concentration camp in Mauthausen, towards the end of the war. They pause in an Austrian village for a few days, where they are locked away in the barn of a farmer who lost a leg and a son to the war. As the Nazi officer in charge of moving them awaits orders to bring them to Mauthausen, they are left in the freezing barn with no food or water. The farmer’s wife (played by Ursula Strauss), decides to take them food everyday, and while she initially does this merely out of a sense of responsibility, the group of Hungarian Jews soon become the only company she has, and ironically, her only source of relief from the reality of the war. She soon convinces her husband (played by Johannes Krisch) to join them in the barn everyday, where the group of Hungarians decide to put up an operetta to thank the farmer’s wife for her generosity. The farmer and his wife take part as well, and in that barn, for a few moments everyday, these people manage to extract themselves from the reality of everything that is going on outside, and dwell in the pleasure of creating something new.
In Scharang’s introduction to the film (read out by someone else; Scharang was unable to make it to the screening), she mentions how the film is more than just a story of the holocaust. It is a story relevant even today, as it reflects upon how we treat our refugees. Also mentioned as noteworthy about the film is the fact that it talks about an aspect of Austrian history that is usually clumsily covered up – that during the war, some civilians in Austrian villages helped the Nazis and abetted the killing of several Jewish people. Both of these are valuable points. The slightest awareness of the status of ethnic minorities in most Western countries is enough to understand the contemporary relevance of this story. It is also true that most popular accounts of that time seem wary of addressing the complicity of civilians in war crimes, just as it is true that this complicity needs to be accounted for.
What most appealed to me about the film, however, was something else, something beyond its contemporariness, and its willingness to address an uncomfortable truth about the war. As Lou Gandolf (Péter Végh), the Hungarian tenor, walks around the barn trying to convince his fellow-prisoners at first to dance, and later on, to sing, play music and perform an operetta with him, Scharang paints a poignant picture of a man fighting hard to keep their spirits – and, indeed, his own – alive. When the farmer discovers his wife is feeding the Jews, and confronts her while she is doing it, Scharang makes us fear for the woman, and makes us afraid her husband might physically hurt her. However, she also shows us the sort of vulnerability in the man that makes us believe he won’t do her any harm. It’s as though there is a hole that was blown right through his being, but his wife is the only one who knows about it. In their fight over what the wife calls “just a few potatoes,” and the revelation of their personal tragedy (“I didn’t ask for the war… you’re a cripple and our son is dead.”), Scharang forces us up against their grief, placing us – for a moment – right there in the barn with them, and with the rest of the Jewish prisoners who are witnessing this fight.
That the story transcends all constraints of context, and has the ability to appeal to people at a universal level is almost too obvious to say. It is a story of survival, a paean to the ways human beings find of coping even with imminent death. In Another Lifetime is not the first film  - and most certainly not the first WWII film – that does this. A film that comes to mind immediately is Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), where a father plucks a delicate ruse out of thin air, and invents a game that keeps his son alive and safe from the Nazis. Much of In Another Lifetime’s premise is the same, and even though Scharang refuses to lace her film with any of the thick sugariness of Benigni’s film, this is not what makes her film stand apart. What does make the film stand out is the way Scharang manages to take a story set in a highly political context, and slowly strip its characters bare of this very context meant to define them. In the barn full of Hungarian Jews, the Austrian farmer and his wife, and in their collective practice for the operetta performance, we see individuals helping each other, working with each other and forcing each other to see some form of joy, while still struggling to pinch at a fading illusion of hope. The barn, in a sense, becomes this sacred space that the war cannot touch, and within it, the people are not Hungarian Jews being marched to Mauthausen, or Austrian civilians whose property is being used to hold them. For a few beautiful if short-lived moments in the barn, there is no war or nationality or ethnicity. There are no citizens, just people. As Lou Gandolf puts it right at the beginning, “imagine you’re in another world…” We see glimpses of the “other lifetime” from the title right there, while the war goes on outside.
The characterizations in In Another Lifetime are delicate and intricate, brittle, but hopeful. Ursula Strauss and Johannes Krisch, who have appeared together in Götz Spielmann’s Austrian noir drama Revanche (2008), play their characters with great skill. Strauss plays the farmer’s wife with minimal affect, so that every outburst – there are few – means so very much. Krisch matches her quietness with the demeanour of a man who is angry at having nothing left to lose, but is still vulnerable because of his desperation to have something to fight for. It’s what the film is all about, this brittle yet steely, stiff yet malleable nature of human character. Set against the backdrop of great tragedy.   
P.S.: You must watch the Queer Duck trailer to the film festival:

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