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Here I Learned to Love Cannot Fail to Move

A slight but powerful entry in the family-history-as-world-history archives, Here I Learned to Love follows two brothers, now in their seventies and living in Israel, as they retrace their first, tragically eventful years in World War II Europe. Avner Kerem was two and Itzik three when their parents and grandparents were deported to death camps from Krakow, Poland, in 1941. An aunt and then a fellow Bergen-Belsen prisoner helped hide and care for the boys over the four following years. Director Avi Angel participates through narration and is occasionally seen comforting the men as they revisit the farms, apartments, and camps where they lived; the press notes reveal he is Avner’s distant in-law. This might have been useful information: Despite moments of attempted lyricism (some, including a harmonica solo in an old gas chamber, work less well than others), Here I Learned to Love suffers from a certain exclusivity, occasionally playing more like a private record than a public offering. Even so, the dynamic between the brothers—each of whom dealt with the experience in different ways—develops its own sorrowful momentum, and their remembrances of the years that bound and divided them cannot fail to move.

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Here I Learned to Love

A slight but powerful entry in the family-history-as-world-history archives, Here I Learned to Love follows two brothers, now in their seventies and living in Israel, as they retrace their first, tragically eventful years in World War II Europe. Avner Kerem was two and Itzik three when their parents and grandparents were deported to death camps from Krakow, Poland, in 1941. An aunt and then a fellow Bergen-Belsen prisoner helped hide and care for the boys over the four following years. Director Avi Angel participates through narration and is occasionally seen comforting the men as they revisit the farms, apartments, and camps where they lived; the press notes reveal he is Avner’s distant in-law. This might have been useful information: Despite moments of attempted lyricism (some, including a harmonica solo in an old gas chamber, work less well than others), Here I Learned to Love suffers from a certain exclusivity, occasionally playing more like a private record than a public offering. Even so, the dynamic between the brothers—each of whom dealt with the experience in different ways—develops its own sorrowful momentum, and their remembrances of the years that bound and divided them cannot fail to move.

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Blinky & Me

By his own account, animator Yoram Gross’s signal creation—a gray-tufted, cheeky koala named Blinky Bill—is the Mickey Mouse of Australia. Most of us will have to take his word for that, and in Blinky & Me, Tomasz Magierski’s lovely and lovingly made portrait of Gross’s life and career, it is a great if often sorrowful pleasure to take his word for much more. Using as a point of entry a trip the longtime Australian took with his five grandchildren back to his native Poland, in Blinky, the 85-year-old Gross narrates his experience of World War II from the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. Magierski frames a too-common story of horror, displacement, and survival with singular warmth: Now a dear old man, Gross is uncommonly gentle with his grandkids, who hang on his every syllable, and the unlikely creation of Blinky Bill is shown to be a direct result and reflection of his suffering. Animations and archival footage add context and texture; best are the simple sequences intercutting Gross and his grandchildren telling one of his stories—from the mouse he befriended while in hiding to the rescue of his sister from German incarceration. All this suggests storytelling’s binding effect across generations and too many borders.

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The Lion of Judah

The first question any director of a new film about the Holocaust should ask him- or herself is, “What can I hope to add to the subject that the existent body of works has not?” The Lion of Judah, a 60-minute documentary travelogue that accompanies a tour group from New York City through Europe’s death camps—from Majdanek to Auschwitz to Terezin—finds a nonsolution in proceeding as though it has no precedent. Inasmuch as he selects a single perspective, director Matt Mindell sets out to build his film around the testimonial of the group’s guide, 81-year-old Leo Zisman, a survivor of the Krakow ghetto who regales his audience with stories of his physical bravery. Zisman’s first-person history is supplemented by the reactions of the tour group, while other topics, like the industry of Holocaust tourism and lingering Central European anti-Semitism, are brushed past too briefly to afford any insight. It is an affecting movie—who cannot be affected by the mountains of discarded eyeglasses and shoes and children being dumped by way of slides into mass graves?—but ultimately, The Lion of Judah is no more essential than the sum of its stock footage.

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SOUND AND VISION

Nine years ago, the Unsound Festival ambitiously attempted to bring together artists on the cutting edge of various genres—everything from drone metal to neo-classical—all in the same place. Then, that place happened to be Kraków, Poland, but in 2010, a New York franchise launched, bringing the music to those unable to afford the expensive round-trip. This year’s five days (starting April 18) are filled with can’t-misses, but today, after catching Sun Araw, Pole, and Inner Tube (a surf-inspired collaboration between Mark McGuire of Emeralds and Spencer Clark of Skaters) at (le) poisson rouge, make sure to head over to Warsaw where the Bunker hosts a lineup of live performances from a handful of dance and electronic artists, including recent Voice cover boy Ital. With Monolake, Demdike Stare, Hieroglyphic Being, and Laurel Halo.

Fri., April 20, 10 p.m., 2012

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‘Unsound Festival: Bass Mutations’

Avant-dubstep’s leading spokesman and the boss behind Hyperdub, Kode9 has finally released a new album with collaborator Spaceape; this month’s Black Sun is an even grittier and more anxious than its predecessor, Memories of the Future. Appleblim has followed up his weird and wonderful work on Shackleton’s Skull Disco with his own label, the equally heavy Apple Pips. With a slew of local and international bass masters (including some repping the Krakow festival’s Easter European roots): Badawi, Lone, Spatial, Sepalcure, Dorian Concept, Dave Q, Chancha Via Circuito, Eleven Tigers, the Phantom, and Zeppy Zep.

Fri., April 8, 10 p.m., 2011

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Katyn’s True Lies

There are directors like John Ford and Alexander Dovzhenko, national bards singing the tales of the tribe, and others like Charles Chaplin and Frank Capra, people’s artists talkin’ straight to the folks. Senegal’s late Ousmane Sembene was both—so is Andrzej Wajda. With his new film Katyn, Poland’s greatest filmmaker caps his career with the story he waited most of his life to tell.

Wajda pointedly titled his first, quasi-autobiographical feature A Generation (1954) and has consistently dramatized critical junctures in 20th-century Polish history, turning them into movies that have aspired to be or—like his masterpieces Kanal (1957), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and Man of Marble (1977)—actually have been political events. Katyn, which sold millions of tickets and provoked a national debate in Poland, addresses a once-taboo, still-traumatic subject: the 1940 liquidation of some 15,000 Polish military officers, carried out on Stalin’s orders and consequently blamed on the Nazis.

The Katyn massacre was grisly; the cover-up, enforced throughout the Cold War and the life of the Soviet Union, was additionally atrocious in that it founded the new Polish state on an obvious lie. For the 82-year-old director, the bloodbath has an added significance—his father was among the victims. This intense personal investment may account for the movie’s uneven quality: While never less than fascinating, Katyn alternates between scenes of tremendous power and sequences most kindly described as dutiful. It’s as if the artist is never certain whether he is making this movie for himself, his father, or the entire nation.

Based on a novel by Andrzej Mularczyk, a veteran screenwriter of Wajda’s generation, Katyn has an anthology quality. The opening scene, set on a Kraków bridge over the Vistula, tops a similar one in Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (and another in Schindler’s List), with a panicky civilian mob in flight from the German advance running headlong into another crowd fleeing the Russians. As the action moves from bloody field hospital to fetid POW camp to Kraków’s Jagiellonian University (where, in another set piece, the Nazis arrest the entire faculty), the filmmaking is robust. Wajda conducts the masses, orchestrates crane shots, and scatters the landscape with highly charged symbols. No movie has ever made the analogy between Hitlerism and Stalinism so visceral.

Katyn is directed for maximum gravitas, but often trips over the script’s clumsy transitions. Turning from wide-screen spectacle to close-up characterization, the direction falters, despite the facility of the actors. Initially, it seems as if the film’s protagonist will be Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), the willowy, sorrowful wife of a captured Polish officer. Wajda, however, has something more epic in mind. The narrative is complicated and elliptical. Jumping from one historical juncture to the next—the German discovery of the Katyn killing field, the Red Army liberation of Poland, the coalescing of a new Polish state around the insistence that Katyn was a Nazi crime—the movie staggers under its shifting cast of characters, stiffly deployed at key moments. A flurry of reaction shots serves to squander the can’t-miss moment when a young child mistakes a uniformed Katyn survivor for her father.

History is the subject. As in Man of Marble, Wajda is particularly adroit at integrating archival footage. The victorious Soviets produce a propaganda film about Katyn that, complete with exhumed bodies and presiding priests, is virtually identical to the Nazi film made two years before. (Shocking as this is, one has to wonder if Wajda didn’t tweak the newsreels to make them so absolutely alike.) Wajda’s most provocative notion is that Katyn was a process that bore its poison fruit in war’s aftermath—families divided and individuals broken by the new regime’s institutionalized doublethink. In a bit of prophetic direct address early in the movie, a Polish general tells his fellow captives (and the camera) that they must survive: “Without you, there will be no free Poland.”

They didn’t, and there wasn’t. Driven mad by the boisterous Soviet propaganda blasting out of the public address system, a Polish officer who miraculously eluded the massacre walks drunkenly out into the snowy street and shoots himself; a beautiful young partisan turns Antigone, sacrificing her future in a hopeless attempt to have her brother’s tombstone dated “1940” (instead of the Soviet-sanctioned “1941”). Earlier, she had argued with her sister, a newly minted Party member who maintains that resistance is futile and, in another pointed bit of direct address, wrongly informs the world that “there will never be a free Poland.”

Late in Katyn, Anna receives her husband’s diary—a device allowing Wajda to restage the procedure of mass murder in harrowing detail. Although the entire movie is a build-up to this grisly 10-minute sequence, it’s a factor of Wajda’s mastery that nothing really prepares us for its single-minded intensity. It seems remarkably self-reflexive that the filmmaker understands that his oeuvre may culminate in this Guernica set-piece; the movie’s final image is that of a truck not quite pushing the earth over a dead hand entwined in a rosary. Katyn, however, is not a confession.

A teenager in People’s Poland and then the most public of public artists, Wajda had to live with Katyn every day. Albeit indifferently staged and poorly written, the movie’s key postwar scene has a boy, applying for art school, refusing to alter his application so as not to conceal his father’s death at Katyn; the twist is that the stern young administrator urging his accommodation to the new reality herself lost a brother at Katyn. Wajda is both characters. Making Katyn allowed him to imagine his father’s murder without telling us what it was like for him to live with it.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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Fractious Solidarity for Trouble Times

Freedom and Form

1. WILLIAM PARKER QUARTET: Sound Unity (AUM Fidelity) Balance and teamwork distinguish every album on this list, but only a great bassist can hold your attention up against this much firepower on trumpet, sax, and drums.

2. ANTHONY BRAXTON: 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003 (Leo) Spread out over four discs, the set structures provide a playpen for Kevin O’Neil’s cool guitar and the leader’s lofty sax.

3. TOMMY SMITH & BRIAN KELLOCK:
Symbiosis
(Spartacus) Duets, tenor sax and piano, standard stuff exquisitely rendered.

4. CRAIG HARRIS: Souls Within the Veil (Aquastra) Heavy with history and horns, sprightly with African percussion, sublime resistance against the oppression of black souls.

5. FME: Cuts (Okka Disk) Stands for Free Music Ensemble, but it’s really Ken Vandermark’s post-punk power trio, where freedom reverts to form.

6. PARAPHRASE: Pre-Emptive Denial (Screwgun) Another sax trio, with Tim Berne in the catbird seat, tethered for his own good by Drew Gress and Tom Rainey.

7. DENNIS GONZÁ SPIRIT MERIDIAN: Idle Wild (Clean Feed) Loquacious Oliver Lake fleshes out this quartet’s healing music for distressing times.

8. FIELDWORK: Simulated Progress (Pi) Vijay Iyer’s robust piano leads Steve Lehman’s skinny alto sax, which is the idea.

9. SIRONE BANG ENSEMBLE: Configuration (Silkheart) Less ambitious than Vietnam but more fun, a stripped-down string section with Charles Gayle in the backseat.

10. THE VANDERMARK 5: Alchemia (Not Two) Twelve discs from one week in Kraków—true grit from the hardest-working man in avant-jazz.

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Bureaucratic Rock

Dave, a wide-eyed New York transplant from the Midwest, receives a driver’s license in the mail that says he was born in Krakow in 1921. To correct this, he heads to the Ministry of Progress, an Orwellian DMV run by people who hate their jobs. As Dave begins wading through the red tape, he slowly realizes there is no way out; he is doomed to stay there forever unless he can find his real identity, which means reconnecting with the dreams of his inner child. On his journey to self-discovery, Dave learns he must rebel against the perverse bureaucracy and, in doing so, set himself and the Ministry’s workers free.

The anti-establishment message is clear, but Obie-winning director Kim Hughes’s hyperactive rock-musical adaptation of Charles Morrow’s radio play jumbles the story. As Dave meets new characters, video images overhead are meant to reveal the identity crisis each character faces. But the images are too vague to tell us much—except for the hard-bodied construction workers that flash on-screen when the closeted doctor does his Village People number.

Which brings us to Hughes’s second problem: The songs are terrible. As the cast climb the set’s scaffolding, they sing clichés about love, destiny, and the sanctity of 401(k)’s. Possibly suffering from too many composers (11!), the score is lyrically empty: “In every kiss, in every touch/Paradise lives in us,” coos “Come on Angel.” The sole memorable song, “Still Here,” is the only one co-written by an actual rock producer, Tony Visconti; the rest are musical dabblers and Taylor Dayne affiliates.

Meanwhile, the audience could care less about Dave. There are too many distractions from his saga (for example, the mysterious guitarist who keeps popping out for no other reason but to do a solo). Near the end, a romance transpires, but it feels more like a vehicle for a couple of love songs than a meaningful plot twist.

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Behind Enemy Lines

Andrzej Munk was among the most gifted avatars of the Polish new wave, which emerged from the ashes of a country laboring under Stalinist occupation, its intellectual elite decimated and its cities in ruins. Though Munk died before he turned 40, this complete retrospective reveals a director with a fully formed vision, whose sense of irony and radical nonconformism belied the confines of his era.

Born in 1921 to a Polish-Jewish family in Kraków, Munk fought in the Polish underground during World War II. Later he attended film school in Lodz and directed documentaries. The Men of the Blue Cross (1955), his first feature, told the true story of a wartime mission to rescue wounded Polish partisans behind enemy lines, high in the Tartar mountains. Bathed in the glow of socialist realism, the grizzled veterans play themselves. The film is remarkable for its daredevil cinematography and for the sense of death that hangs over all the participants.

For Eroica (1958), a two-part black comedy, Munk drew upon his experiences in the doomed Warsaw uprising of 1944 to wreak havoc with ideals of military valor. In the first half, Dzidzius, a sometime patriot and Warsaw con man, makes a deal with his wife’s lover, a Hungarian officer, in a futile effort to save the bombarded city from German invaders. Eroica‘s second half is set in a P.O.W. camp for Polish officers, where the heroic legend of Lieutenant Zawistowski, the sole inmate to escape, helps maintain the prisoners’ morale; only a few know that he’s really hiding in the attic. The dream of liberty is an illusion in this biting satire of life under totalitarianism.

Munk’s critique becomes more explicit in Bad Luck (1960), an absurdist parable about Jan, a spineless schmendrick who does everything wrong in his futile attempts to rise through the ranks of pre- and postwar Polish society. Jan only “looks Jewish” (that’s part of his bad luck), but he’s hounded by an outsider’s desire to assimilate at all costs. From his youth as a failed Boy Scout to his faltering career as a craven Stalinist bureaucrat, his tale reveals a culture of endless accommodation.

In 1961, while shooting The Passenger, Munk was killed in a car crash. His friend Witold Lesiewicz spent two years editing the footage and adding still photography and voice-over narration. A woman returning to Germany after a long absence thinks she recognizes, on the deck of her cruise ship, an inmate from the death camp where she served as an S.S. officer. Strange and fragmentary, The Passenger is a compelling exploration of hangman’s psychology, loaded with unanswered questions about the reliability of memory and the human need for exculpation.