Good citizens have a lot to answer for

November 20, 1991

Martha and I
Directed by Jiri Weiss (Germany/France, 1990)
True Confections
Directed by Gail Singer (Canada, 1991)
Showing at the Second Jewish Film Festival
Until December 1
AFI Cinema, Paddington, Sydney
Reviewed by Vivienne Porzsolt

Martha and I is a charming, powerful picture of the growth to adulthood of an upper middle class Jewish boy in Czechoslovakia just before and at the beginning of World War II. The social and political tensions of the time are delicately portrayed.

The film is autobiographical. Jiri Weiss was sent away from his Prague home to his uncle in the small Sudetenland town of Brux/Most after a sexual encounter with the family maid.

From a liberal and permissive uncle (Michel Piccoli), the boy absorbs the progressive social views and an awareness of the exploitative nature of the class system.

The uncle is a well-known and loved obstetrician in the small town. When the boy comes to him seeking assistance with an abortion for his girlfriend, he resists at first, unwilling to perform a "criminal act", but relents, looking after the young woman with compassion.

This milieu is thoroughly assimilated. The acknowledgement of the family's being Jewish is forced on them by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.

Jiri Weiss lost his relatives in the Holocaust. His mother and aunts would not take the plunge and escape when they had the opportunity — they would not face struggles and the possibility of having to do menial work for a living. As well, they insisted that their brother stay behind and look after them. He did stay and perished also.

The film underlines the moral and political corruption of the "good citizens" who failed to oppose the Nazis, and in fact collaborated with them.

The affection with which the town regards the obstetrician is no protection after the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland. The "good citizens" conform and throw him out of his job.

True Confections is a much slighter piece of work. It portrays the adolescence of a young Jewish girl in Winnipeg in the 1950s. The feminist movement has produced many of these stories. In the 1970s they were illuminating and necessary. In the 1990s, the same issues portrayed in the same way are merely clichés.

However, there are some nice chuckles. The young men sound off pompously about political and philosophical concepts which they know nothing about, while the young women in their "crowd" are simply hangers-on in the slipstream of the men's pretensions.

Martha and I poses the politics of sexuality as "liberality" versus "prudery". It takes for granted that "liberal" standards in sexual behaviour promote "freedom". This failure to address sexual politics from the point of view of the oppression of women is to be rector from a political and social context where feminism was decried as "bourgeois". The sexual politics espoused in the film are, however, progressive, insofar as they attack conventional sexual mores.

The narrowness of mid-western Canada in the 1950s is excruciating in comparison with the sophistication of the milieu portrayed in Martha and I. The family portrayed in True Confections is consciously Jewish, quite unlike the assimilated worldliness of the uncle in Martha and I. Most Jewish immigrants to North America came from Poland and Russia, escaping pogroms and poverty. They brought with them the narrow culture of the shtetl to which they had been confined.

We get a glimpse of the energy of the culture which has been left behind in Verna's feisty grandmother. Verna, as a true blue North American teenager, nearly dies of mortification when her grandmother goes on local radio to expose the racist and anti-Semitic admission practices of the local medical school.

Verna's dread of being noticed as different is partly adolescent and partly the result of coming from an immigrant background and striving to be accepted.

Yet it is just this conformity, this fear of speaking out and being visible, which allows fascism and political hysteria to flourish, as the Nazi and McCarthy periods illustrated. "Good citizens" have a lot to answer for.

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