Short takes on the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

"Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death."

Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death (Raymond Lay, Germany/Israel, 2010) Many documentaries rely heavily on historical reenactments to flesh out real-life events not caught on camera. Sometimes this effect can be corny, but in Eichmann's End, the powerful reenactments make the film. Interviews with actual eyewitnesses guide the acted-out tale of Nazi Adolph Eichmann's post-World War II life; despite his grim contributions to the Holocaust, he managed to escape to Buenos Aires, eventually settling down to a normal-seeming life with his wife and sons. Though he lived under an assumed name, his true identity was known by many, including a Dutch journalist who conducted a series of interviews with Eichmann in the late 1950s.

Transcripts from these chats are performed nearly verbatim, tellingly revealing Eichmann's lack of guilt, remorse, or any feelings whatsoever (except regret that he wasn't able to exterminate all the Jews before the war ended). When by chance his teenage son became smitten with the pretty daughter of a Jewish Nazi hunter who'd survived a concentration camp in the 1930s, events were set in motion that lead to his dramatic capture and highly public trial in Israel. (For what happened next, see The Hangman, below). Eichmann's End occasionally betrays its made-for-TV roots (as with its intrusive, unnecessarily "tense" score), but it's chilling nonetheless. Mon/25, 5 p.m., Castro; Mon/1, 4:25 p.m., Roda; Aug. 7, 2:10 p.m., Oshman. (Cheryl Eddy)

The Hangman (Netalie Braun, Israel, 2010) Sephardic Jew Shalom Nagar would already be a pretty compelling subject for a short documentary — for starters, he's a ritual butcher by trade — but the film's title reveals his most prominent contribution to history: he was the jailer turned executioner of Adolph Eichmann. Though he calls the man evil (and, chuckling, recalls that the captured Nazi literally thought his shit didn't stink) he admits he "grew attached" after six months of close contact; his task was not so much preventing Eichmann's escape, but preventing his death before his trial, to the point of taste-testing all his food to make sure it wasn't poisoned. When lots were drawn and a hesitant Nagar was selected to "press the button," the experience affected him so deeply that he became devoutly religious. The rest of his life story, including a stint working at a jail in Hebron after the Six-Day War (where he advocated for prisoners' rights), is no less remarkable, and reveals a remarkable man who views his fellow humans without any shred of prejudice. July 31, 4:45 p.m., JCCSF; Aug. 2, 4:40 p.m., Roda; Aug. 6, 4:30 p.m., Oshman. (Eddy)

In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery (Britta Wauer, Germany, 2011) In Heaven Underground charts the history of the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin, the second-largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, and an important piece of Jewish-German culture that somehow managed to escape desecration at the hands of the Nazis. Surprisingly perhaps, In Heaven Underground is a joyous film, showcasing Weissensee not as a place of death, but as a site for the enduring vibrancy of life. From the Pobbig-Shulz family who live on its premises to the goshawk enthusiasts who conduct research in its lush deciduous environs, Jews and gentiles alike reveal Weissensee cemetery’s resilient personality and its contributions to the people of Berlin both in the past and present. As Harry Kindermann, who worked there as a teenager, notes: “Jewish children could laugh in 1942. But only in the cemetery, because nobody there forbade it.” Sun/24, Castro, 11 a.m.; Aug. 6, 4:40 p.m., Roda. (Cooper Berkmoyer)

Polish Bar (Ben Berkowitz, U.S., 2010) The "good Jewish boy:" does he really exist? In Polish Bar, director-writer Ben Berkowitz tells the story of Rueben (Vincent Piazza) as he grapples with his roots and does whatever it takes to realize his dream of DJ stardom. Although employed by his uncle Sol (Judd Hirsch), Reuben moonlights at a strip club, honing his turntable skills and scoring cash on the side with more illicit trade. Along with stripper Ebony (Golden Brooks) and bouncer Tommy (James Badge Dale), he walks a razor’s edge between his aspirations and utter obliteration. Piazza does a great job of toeing the line; Reuben never comes off as malicious, just lost and caught in a vicious game. As Reuben sinks ever deeper into a sordid world of drugs and sex (and a weird plot tangent or two) he is forced to confront his tenuous relationship with his Jewish upbringing and face the repercussions of his actions. Sat/23, 9:15 p.m., Castro; July 30, 9:30 p.m., Roda; Aug. 2, 8:45 p.m., Oshman; Aug. 6, 8:55 p.m., Rafael. (Berkmoyer)

Skate of Mind (Karin Kainer, Israel, 2010) Ostensibly a documentary about skateboarding in Tel Aviv, Skate of Mind is more poignantly a story of youth in Israel. Mohammed Kahil (a.k.a. Juice) is an Arab-Israeli teenager with an unquenchable thirst for skating, dashing his father’s hopes that Mohammed help out with the family grocery store. Ever the rebellious son, he leaves home to move in with his Jewish girlfriend, Alina Fine. Although there are plenty of opportunities for Mohammed to showcase his considerable talent and talk endlessly about skateboarding, his relationship with Alina is the most intriguing part of Skate of Mind. Both their fathers disapprove, and having to get by on their own wears on their youthful, bordering-on-naïve love. In the end, despair and hope meet side by side as two young Israelis are forced to confront reality and look to the future. July 31, 8:50 p.m., JCCSF; Aug. 4, 2:30 p.m., Roda. (Berkmoyer)

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
July 21-Aug 8, most shows $12
Castro Theater
429 Castro, SF
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1119 Fourth St., San Rafael
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
3200 California, SF
Oshman Jewish Community Center
3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison, Berk.
(415) 621-0523