This year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival is presenting films for virtually every taste.
Nadav Shirman’s sizzling documentary burnishes but also tarnishes the reputation of the legendary Israeli spy, Ze’ev Gur Arie. Otherwise known as Wolfgang Lotz, he was sent to Egypt in the early 1960s to pose as an affluent horse breeder.
Lotz’s mission was two-fold: to gather first-hand data about Egypt’s arms acquisitions and to sabotage its budding missile program, spearheaded by German scientists who had worked for Adolf Hitler. A half-Jew who fled Germany with his Jewish mother after Hitler’s rise to power, he was uniquely positioned to play that role. He had Aryan features, was not circumcised, spoke perfect German, had nerves of steel and was fearless, and could effortlessly connect with people and extract vital information from them.
The 90-minute film, which moves from the present to the past and back again, begins as Lotz explains to an Israeli TV interviewer how he adopted the false identity of a dashing, high-living former Nazi and Wehrmacht officer based in Egypt. “He lived his character,” says one of his Mossad associates. “He could have been a good stage actor,” observes another colleague. “The job was made for him.”
Throughout it all, Lotz led a double life, moving seamlessly between two very different worlds. In Cairo, he befriended Egyptian army officers and German expatriates. Recharging his batteries every few months, he would return to Paris, where his wife, Rivka, and son, Oded, lived temporarily.
The Champagne Spy unfolds through the perspective of his son – who loved and admired his father and implicitly knew was he was up to – and through old family movies and interviews with colleagues.
Even after he was caught, shortly before Israeli spy Eli Cohen was executed in Syria in 1965, he succeeded in concealing the fact that he was an Israeli national. Yet Lotz was also a bigamist, having married Waltraud Neumann, a German woman he had met in Cairo. The Mossad had moral qualms about this arrangement, but ultimately tolerated it because Waltraud was a valued asset.
As the film suggests, life for Lotz following his escapades in Egypt was rather dull and disappointing. After his horse farm in Israel failed and Neumann died, he was at loose ends, piling up debts and living aimlessly. When the champagne stop flowing, he became a pale imitation of his former self, and finally, a lonely and tragic figure.
Sunday, May 11, 11 a.m., Al Green Theatre.
Nasira (Francis Benhamou) and Rochelle (Zoe Lister-Jones) form an unlikely friendship in Arranged, playing at the Bloor Cinema on May 9 at 1 p.m.
This feature film, directed by Diane Erespo and Stefan Schaefer and starring an unknown but accomplished cast, examines the phenomenon of arranged marriages among traditional Jews and Muslims.
Rochelle (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Nasira (Francis Benhamou) are both new teachers at a Brooklyn public school. They are as different as night and day, Rochelle being an Orthodox Jew and Nasira being a Syrian Muslim. To their thoroughly modern and somewhat blinkered principal, however, they are identical peas in a pod.
When they come under pressure from their parents to choose a spouse from a list of preferred candidates, they co-operate with the plan. Once they have met the less than captivating men that have been selected for their consideration, they rebel. They are not willing to settle for just anyone. In the process, they form an unlikely cross-cultural friendship.
Sparks fly when Rochelle invites Nasira to her home. Being anti-Arab, Rochelle’s closeted mother claims that there may be “repercussions” that will hurt her prospects. By contrast, Nasira’s parents are more welcoming when she brings Rochelle to their house.
In her quest to find Mr. Right, Rochelle attends a party to which her secular cousin takes her. She feels uncomfortable in that milieu and rejects it. Nasira, meanwhile, glows with satisfaction after being introduced to a suitable young Muslim man. In an interesting twist, Rochelle spies the man of her dreams in a library, prepping for an exam with Nasira’s brother.
Arranged, a sweet confection with a feel-good ending, will appeal to a wide range of viewers.
Friday, May 9, 1 p.m., Bloor Cinema.
Basketball, an international sport, originated in the United States and was popularized by Jews in New York City before going global. Jews took to the game like ducks to water, suggests sports writer Charley Rose in David Vyorst’s engaging documentary. “And they really put their stamp on it.”
Sports in general and basketball in particular appealed to Jews because it was “a powerful vehicle” for social integration and acceptance. So much so that the basketball coach replaced the rabbi as a central force in the lives of these young athletic Jewish men. Indeed, compared to boxing, which was harder to “sell” to dubious parents, basketball was deemed to be a “good” sport.
The Jewish legends of basketball are trotted out. Arnold (Red) Auerbach, one of basketball’s greatest tactical minds, coached the Boston Celtics to eight National Basketball Association titles. Nat Holman, an intellectual who read Molliere and Shakespeare, was Auerbach’s predecessor at the Celtics. In 1949, Holman helped establish basketball in Israel.
David Stern, the current NBA commissioner, recalls walking to games at Madison Square Garden to watch his heroes play. But these days, Jewish professional basketball players are rare, Dan Schayes having been one of the last of them. Basketball, though, is big in Israel. Tal Brody, an American who made aliyah and played for the Maccabi Tel Aviv club, was one of its biggest stars before his retirement.
Sunday, May 11, 2 p.m., Al Green
Danny Kaye, the multi-talented comedian who could act, sing and dance, is the subject of Bob Marty’s puff piece profile, which originally appeared on the PBS television network.
Born David Kaminsky in 1913, the son of Russian immigrants, he went into show business after setting his sights on a career in medicine. “I’m crazy about what I do,” he once said. Working in one-reel films and as a tummler at Borsch Belt resorts in the Catskills, he broke into film after signing a five-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn in 1943. His movies, ranging from The Kid From Brooklyn to White Christmas, catapulted Kaye to stardom and the cover of Time magazine, and prompted UNICEF – a United Nations agency – to offer him a roving ambassadorship.
Friday, May 9, 2:30 p.m., Al Green.
Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy classic, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as conceited actors in a Warsaw theatre in 1939, has not aged badly, though it looks a little dated and quaint. In terms of plot, the wily pair become embroiled in a surreal plot to ridicule and bamboozle the Nazis. The pace is fast and furious, though a bit convoluted, the farce is cutting, and the film resounds to the sardonic chorus of “Heil Hitlers.” Lubitsch made the film before realizing that the Nazis were intent on exterminating European Jews.
Friday, May 9, 5 p.m., Al Green.