Thursday, November 20, 2014

A very personal Holocaust documentary opens in L.A. -- the Kaufmans' SHADOWS FROM MY PAST

Among Holocaust documentaries -- and it seems of late that there are a dozen or more that appear during any given year -- SHADOWS FROM MY PAST, the very homemade movie directed and written by and starring Gita Kaufman (her husband Curt is also credited, but we never see nor hear from him*) may be one of the most personal of all. Ms Kaufman, a Jew born in Austria, lost most of her family to the Holocaust, and this movie is both an exploration of the state of Austria today and a look back at many of the photographs of and letters by family members that give us a firsthand glimpse into what the experience was like.

To do this, Ms Kaufman, shown at left, gathers up an amazing group of archival photos, letters and documents, as well as visiting Austria for the first time (since leaving there as a child) to interview a number of important people about the country's history and current politics. For anyone with even marginal interest in the Holocaust and Europe today, her film should be seen. I call it homemade because it seems to be the product of a first-time filmmaker with a certain naivete who occasionally could give us a bit more information than she does. For instance, we hear about Austria's Freedom Party without having it identified very well.

Yet this very homemade quality is part of the reason that the film succeeds as well as it does. Ms Kaufman, rather than seeming any kind of professional, instead acts as a stand-in for us in many ways. She asks the kinds of questions we might ask, and when she explains all about her various family members and what happened to them, it's like hearing a new friend talk about her loved ones.

This is affecting and very specific, and it raises what might easily seem another generic Holocaust documentary to something of a much more personal encounter. Among her talking heads are everyone from the late Simon Wiesenthal and Kurt Waldheim (below) to various Holocaust survivors and even actor/performer Theodore Bikel. (From the date of the deaths of some of these men, it is clear that the Kaufmans have been working on their film for some time.)

As for the Austrians she encounters and interviews, their watchwords appear to be "We were victims, too." Which should provoke a loud and unpleasant shout of, "Tell me another!" A few of the Austrians do admit to bearing some responsibility for Nazism and World War II, but even then, hearing them attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for the destruction of most of Europe's Jewish population is pretty appalling.

As Mrs. Kaufman weaves together her interviews and reads us the letters from her relatives, as we see the many beautiful photographs unfold, along with various documents of the day, the effect provides the kind of entry into the Holocaust that I have not so far experienced. (The photo below shows Gita as a child back in Austria.)

Thankfully, the filmmaker has chosen not to use any "re-enactments" which -- given all that we're able to see and hear -- would be unnecessary in any case. No, Shadows from My Past is indeed a real and rather honorably old-fashioned documentary, the lack of professionalism of which is more than made up for by its history and heart.

After a short theatrical release here in New York City this past August, which garnered too little press (though it did manage good reviews from The New York Times and Village Voice), the film -- running 85 minutes -- opens this Friday in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Town Center 5. I hope it will eventually make its way onto DVD, as well.

* Sunday, November 30, 2014: TrustMovies just received a surprise phone call from Gita Kauffman, thanking him for his review while also mentioning that her late husband Curt was indeed a major part of this film. Curt traveled with his wife, acted as co-writer, -director and -producer, did some of the film editing and all of the cinematography. Unfortunately, the gentleman died shortly before the film was to be released.

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