Playback St. Louis

November 11, 2011

by Joe Hodes

Two excellent documentaries illustrate the rise and consequences of fanaticism.…

The second documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in the Holocaust or how the human spirit adapts and tries to thrive under impossible circumstances. Song of the Lodz Ghetto provides a history of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, concentrating on Yankele Herskowicz and other troubadours whose songs made life under the Nazi thumb livable. Adapted from existing Polish, German, and Yiddish tunes, the lyrics ranged from ditties poking fun at the ghetto’s reviled ruler, Nazi puppet Chaim Rumkowski, to ballads of anguish at lost families and a lost world. The film features many remarkable sequences, not the least of which are current-day clips of ghetto survivors happily singing tunes they haven’t heard in over half a century, but were either seared into their minds or were their only refuge during that horrible time. More than just a documentary, it is also a concert film, as modern-day Jewish quartet, Brave Old World, bring the songs to life. The film is an excellent blend of interviews with scholars and survivors, period photos and clips from newsreels, and performances by the modern-day band and some of the singer survivors themselves. The film even raises (even if it can’t fully answer) the question of did the singers do some harm as well as good. Not unlike the band on the Titanic, did these singers encourage calm and complacency when resistance and struggle were called for? The ghetto boss Rumkowski may have sensed it himself, as he is quoted in the film as having said, “Better a singer on the street than a murderer in [my] office.”

Don’t let the opportunity that SLIFF affords to see some of the best in the indie and world cinema to pass you by. | Joe Hodes

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