Three Historical Dramas. Films reviewed: Budapest Noir, An Act of Defiance, Bye Bye Germany

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Apartheid, Drama, Germany, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, South Africa by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto, with Hotdocs rounding up its fnal weekend. Remember, daytime tickets to these amazing documentaries are free for all students and seniors.

And starting up now is Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, featuring comedies, dramas, TV and documentaries from around the world. This week I’m looking at three historical dramas now playing at TJFF. There’s a mystery/thriller set in Budapest in the 30s, a comedy/drama in Frankfurt in the 40s, and a courtroom drama in Pretoria in the 60s.

Budapest Noir

Dir: Éva Gárdos

It’s 1936, and everyone in Budapest is preparing for the state funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. Everyone but cynical reporter Szigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik). Crime’s his beat, not politics and cigarettes and bourbon are his life’s blood. And his only distraction is a beautiful woman. So he’s pleasantly surprised when he meets a mysterious woman in a downtown cafe. But today’s potential love interest is tomorrow’s news story when he finds her body in a pool of blood.

He calls on his ex-girlfriend Kristina, a photographer (Réka Tenki) to take pics of the crimes scene. (She’s back in Budapest after smuggling shocking photos out of Germany.) But when he tries to investigate the murder, he faces roadblocks at every turn, with no one but Kristina to help him. The chief of police, the politicians, and even members of the underworld seem to be blocking him from finding the truth. And for some reason her body has disappeared from the morgue.

His search leads him to pornographers, fascist gangs, a coffee importer, a secret communist meeting, a madame at a brothel, and a punch-drunk boxer, all in an attempt to solve the mystery. Will he find what he seeks? Or is he digging too deep, uncovering things journalists aren’t supposed to see?

Budapest Noir is a look at the underbelly of a huge city in turmoil in turbulent times. It’s presented in a film noir style, narrated by a Bogart-type character complete with trenchcoat and hat, and borrows images from dozens of famous movies. Occasionally it veers from pastiche into parody with all its hollywood memes, but generally it’s a solid and well-acted homage, full of surprises.

An Act of Defiance

Dir: Jean Van De Velde

It’s 1963 in South Africa. The police raid a secret meeting in a farm house in Rivonia, arresting everyone there. The meeting was by the heads of umKhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Charged with sabotage, the accused face death by hanging, and it looks like they’re heading that way. Until a respected white Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), agrees to head the defence team. The defendants include Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

But the prosecutors are working hand-in-hand with the police, the government and the secret service. They tap phones, record private lawyer-client conversations, and send spies out at night to take pictures through windows. Turns out Fischer is not just a random defence lawyer helping out; he has deep ties to the anti-apartheid movement. As the trial progresses, he and his family become the targets of underhanded campaigns. Can he convince a conservative judge to save the defendents’ lives? Or will they, and he, end up in the gallows?

This is a fascinating and intense courtroom drama, about a period of South African history largely unknown outside of that country. It includes Mandela’s famous “I’m prepared to die” speech given during the trial, but he and the other defendents are minor characters. It’s mainly about Fischer and his family, including his wife Mollie (beautifully played by Antoinette Louw) and the fight against apartheid. It also includes some thrilling moments about the family avoiding an evil police force.

This is another good film to catch.

Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Dir: Sam Garbarski (Based on the novels of Michel Bergmann)

It’s occupied Frankfurt just after WWII. A quarter of a million holocaust survivors are living in DP (displaced persons) camps in central Europe, run by allied forces. They’re waiting to emigrate to America or Palestine. But in the meantime they have to support themselves. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) a sweet-talking teller of tales with a pencil thin mustache and a mysterious past. He says his family has been in dry goods for generations. So he recruits a ragtag bunch of salesmen to help peddle his linens. But they wonder why he keeps disappearing for hours at a time. Where does he go?

He’s being interrogated by the stern but beautiful Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) a German-speaking G.I. assigned to weed out war criminals and collaborators from among the refugees. Why was Bermann given special treatment by the SS? His answer? He told funny jokes. Will Sara believe his outlandish stories? Will his business venture pan out? And will he and his friends make enough money to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland?

Bye Bye Germany is a very entertaining, but bittersweet, memoir of life as a jew in postwar Frankfurt. Antje Traue is the perfect foil for Bleibtreu’s charming but sketchy Bermann. I liked this movie.

You can catch Bye Bye Germany, An Act of Defiance and Budapest Noir at TJFF over the next two weeks. Go to TJFF.com for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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  1. […] (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up […]

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