WWII Film Review – Ghetto (2006)

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Apparently, its popular to like this film. I watched Ghetto (2006) and was not really able to get on the bandwagon of reviewers at IMDB. I never connected to the contrived characters, instead, they just annoyed me, even the ones I was supposed to like the most. While it had its good points (I’ll mention those soon), the film left me thinking it had more in common with a collegiate art-major’s senior screenplay project than a commercial feature film. Being an graduate of a creative arts degree program, it had that all-too-familiar artsy smell.

On the plus side, production value was extremely high, lighting was fantastic, some scenes were textbook film school studies. It was well-made. But alas, the story seemed too detached from reality.

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The screenplay had its moments in which I was almost won over –  I was close to jumping on board with a character or two, but sadly, the sadistic and twisted Gestapo chief Kittel is the most interesting character only because he is a stereotypical, unpredictable, hair-trigger, lunatic Gestapo chief so common in war films. It just so happens this one can play a saxophone.

The story could have been very compelling, the historical setting certainly calls for a good literary and film homage: In mid-1941, Germany had marched into Lithuania and soon had successfully killed 55,000 Jews. This gross horror is successfully honored in the film. The 15,000 who survived were squeezed into a ghetto of seven narrow streets run by a Jewish council established by the Germans, as was the fashion for occupied cities. Ghetto life was one of extreme cruelty and impoverishment. Here, in Vilnius, Lithuania, we find a group of Jewish actors holed up in a small theater.

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But here, Gestapo chief Kittel, a 22 year old who is fond of the piano and pretty good on the saxophone, uncovers a bean thief and promptly sentences her to death. He is clearly a lover of music and art on one side, but a sadistic Nazi on the other. Art wins out, and he allows the bean thief to make it up to him by performing. The bean thief just happens to be a famous stage performer named Hayyah. Kittel lusts for her, it is clear, so he allows the theater to open in order to perform, which provides a stage on which he can entertain his carnal desires – all under the guise of letting Hayyah pay back the bean debt.

There is a good attempt at tension and drama here. Several times the unpredictable Kittel is provoked. The theater troop is to be commended for their excellent Nazi parodies and for their very brave (one might even say even overly stupid) mockery of the Reich and its goons in the face of Kettel. This is a satisfying side of the otherwise bland theatrical group.

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Meanwhile, Gens, the local head of the Jewish police, uses the theater troop and as well as a sewing shop scheme to secure work permits in the ghetto, and possibly survival for many, but at what cost? Being the local police chief for the Nazis is a shady position to begin with, treasonous in some eyes. But Gens tries very hard to justify his position. He is a Lithanian, a Jew and in league with the Nazis? One of the quotes noted is this one: “To lead some to freedom I had to lead others to death.” I was very close to feeling deep empathy for Gens, but in the end, he was a shallow and predictable WWII film character.

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Yes, Gens is in an ethically untenable position of being an advocate for his people while being a servant of the Nazis. Donald Sutherland does a far better job of it as Adam Czerniakow in the very good Uprising. We want to root for Gens, and yes, we are troubled by his traitorous side. Like all fence-sitter, he troubles us because we can relate to his struggle – we know deep down that we are not as principled as we think we are. Would we do the same thing? Or would we die honorably (the most probably outcome of standing for principles) and with clean hands? Gens is a compelling, if shallow, character.

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Beautiful production value and well-composed shots like this do not rescue this flat story.

This film stinks. It stinks because it tempted me to care deeply for one or two people but then let me down with over-the-top silliness that reeks of self-indulged artists trying to justify their chosen area of study. I don’t know for sure, and maybe its not the case at all, but its like the writer so desired for the arts to save the day that he invented a story to make it so.

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In that light, beware if you bother watching it – the film does feature a scene or two of debauchery being depicted (drunkenness, especially), and in that scene, some nudity and sexual cheap shots are deployed (big surprise!). “Artists” are so predictable when it comes to getting someone naked. It is as if the inclusion of nudity elevates them above the old-fashioned, modest masses and makes them elites above us common stodgy prudes. But there it is – “artistry” that does not bother to work hard to communicate the concept of debauchery without actually descending into it. Its the easy way out. The typical way. The un-creative way.

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The film was not real memorable, nothing in it compels me to view it again, no deep ethical dilemmas draw me, no dramatic moments that are must-sees. Sadly, the Lithuanian Jews need a better representative of their plight. This film is not it.

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