FILM REVIEW; Holocaust Stories From Some of the Luckier Ones

Early in “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s eloquent Holocaust film, an impeccably dressed couple — he in a bowler, she in a fur coat — are thrown out of their grand Cracow apartment and herded to the ghetto. After carrying their bags up their new building’s narrow stairs, they find a tiny apartment, a crying baby and half a dozen other new occupants. “It could be worse,” says the wife in a faint voice, straining for optimism. Her husband looks at her as if she’s insane. “Tell me,” he shouts, “how on earth could it possibly be worse?”

Even a 10-year-old seeing the movie could give him the terrible answer to that question and warn him that he is certain to find out soon. That’s what makes the scene so painful. That is also what makes Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy’s documentary “The Port of Last Resort” less powerful than it might have been.

The film is about the 20,000 or so European Jews who fled the Nazis between 1939 and 1941 by going to Shanghai, where they found less than a perfect new life. The filmmakers describe it as a story of survival, but the narrative stresses the difficulties rather than the strength of the human spirit.

Upon arrival the immigrants were transported on trucks to a camp of sorts, where they were served little more than noodle soup. There was only a public bath. (One woman recalls almost being late for her own wedding because it was the first time in months she’d had a warm bath and she wanted to enjoy the luxury as long as she could.) There were few jobs, so the unemployed men spent their days playing cards and listening to the radio. Eventually the Japanese, who took control of Shanghai in 1941, created a Jewish ghetto there and thousands suffered great deprivation.

This must have been a traumatizing experience for refugees of all ages. Imagine the relief of escape and the hope of renewal, only to find a new set of difficulties. The problem with “The Port of Last Resort” making those points, of course, is that its words and images — refugees’ letters, home movies, archival footage and present-day interviews — have to compete with harrowing scenes from a host of other Holocaust films, fictional and documentary. The overwhelming tone of this film, while appreciating the difficulties, should have been about how lucky the survivors were. Wouldn’t the inmates of the German camps have loved to have problems like unemployment and boredom?

This is not to diminish the tremendous hardships the Shanghai refugees endured, but their story might have better been told through fiction, having one person or one family’s story provide the kind of emotional close-up that drives such experiences home.

“The Port of Last Resort” is being shown at Anthology Film Archives with “Memory of Berlin,” John Burgan’s well-meaning but unsatisfying documentary about his search for his biological parents. Unfortunately Mr. Burgan, who often sounds bored by his own voice-over, describes his search in painfully obvious terms.

“Whatever happened to that other baby, Matthew?” he asks rhetorically. (Matthew was the name his German mother gave him at birth; his British adoptive parents named him John.) “Nature or nurture: the question every adoptee asks sooner or later,” he intones as if this were a new thought. But he draws no conclusions. Although Mr. Burgan finds his birth mother and learns about his father, these discoveries have less impact on screen than do his home movies of childhood vacations.

Zuflucht in Shanghai

Written, directed, produced and edited by Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy; director of photography, Wolfgang Lehner; music by John Zorn; released by the National Center for Jewish Film. Running time: 79 minutes. Shown with a 76-minute film, John Burgan’s “Memory of Berlin.” These films are not rated. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue at Second Street, East Village.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Barbara Sukowa, Otto Tausig, Jaromir Borek, Erika Deutinger, Fritz von Friedl and Brigitta Furgler.
INTERVIEWS WITH: Fred Fields, Ernest Heppner, Illo Heppner and Siegmar Simon.


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