The Ultimate Jewish Film Guide

Back in September, I compiled a list here of some of the most iconic Jewish music from across genres and across the decades. Now it’s time to do the same for some of the most noteworthy Jewish films of all time. As with the previous list, the definition of what is a “Jewish” film is contested, but I will attempt to explain and justify all my choices as I go. If you disagree or have any other suggestions, add a comment and let me know! I’ll add a new one every day until New Year’s Eve, so keep checking back, and follow on twitter @WanderJewBlog to see when I’ve updated it.

The Producers (1968)

I don’t think any non-Jew could get away with making a film so crassly offensive and yet utterly hilarious. Simply put, it’s an all-time classic, one of the most iconic examples of the much-vaunted Jewish humour.

Co-stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom
Co-stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom

What makes this 1968 classic a Jewish film? For a start, it includes some of the most famous Jewish Hollywood icons of all time, including screenwriter/director Mel Brooks and actor Gene Wilder. But this film’s Jewish identity runs much deeper. The plot is centred around the production of a Broadway musical portraying a “gay romp” through the life of Adolf Hitler and includes a song entitled “Springtime for Hitler”. It’s not just the Fuhrer who comes in for ridicule; the film plays up every Jewish stereotype you’ve ever imagined, and probably some you haven’t. 

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Dreamworks’ first traditionally-animated film follows the narrative of the Book of Exodus, the story of Moses, and was a huge success at the time of its release.

Film poster for The Prince of Egypt
Film poster for The Prince of Egypt

There isn’t too much to add about this classic animated film which follows the story of Moses and the Jewish people from reed-basket to Red Sea-crossing. The cast includes such names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Ralph Fiennes and Israeli singer Ofra Haza (who also appeared in the aforementioned Jewish playlist from September). Haza sang “Deliver Us”, her musical number which opens the film, in 18 of the 21 languages the film was dubbed into.

Schindler’s List (1993)

There’s no way around it, any list of important Jewish films will have at least one Holocaust film, and if you ask people, odds are this is the one they’ll name.

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Steven Spielberg’s film tells a dramatised version of the story of Oskar Schindler and his efforts in saving over 1,000 Jews in Krakow during the Holocaust. The film is full of poignant moments, performed by a brilliant cast and led by a director for whom this was a very personal project. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning seven of them, and was marked for preservation in the US Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2004. Not an easy film to watch, but unquestionably a necessary one.

Beaufort (2007)

Does it glorify the IDF, or does it criticise it? Is it a war film, or an anti-war film? There’s no consensus on that (as the trailer cleverly points out), but what is not in doubt is that this is an exceptional film, and the closest Israel has come to winning an Oscar in recent years.

220px-beaufortposter

I remember the first time I watched Beaufort. I was sat in my living room with two friends, one a Jewish Israeli, and the other an Arab-Israeli. When it was over, we talked about it. The Jewish friend said he didn’t like it, and felt like it was unjustifiably critical of the army and the soldiers. The Arab friend didn’t like it for the exact opposite reason, because he felt like it glorified the IDF in its occupation of southern Lebanon. Me? I realised that if the same film, seen at the same time, in the same circumstances, could be read in two such distinct ways, it must be something very special indeed. This is probably my favourite Israeli film of all time.

Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob [1973]

Translated into English and released in the US as The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, this French film is undoubtedly the silliest film on the list. It’s pure, simple, joyous slapstick, which is why anyone can enjoy it.

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After two fairly serious films, I thought it was time to lighten the atmosphere. In the best tradition of Jewish filmmakers (see also Mel Brooks above), Gèrard Oury’s comedy, starring one of the most famous French comic actors of all time, the wonderfully expressive Louis de Funès, pokes fun at everyone and anyone. Jews, Muslims, Christians, old and young, nobody is safe in this story about a bigoted old Frenchman who impersonates a popular American rabbi in order to escape assassins. In the scene below, de Funès shows up in the community as Rabbi Jacob for the first time, and is invited to join in a communal dance.

Exodus (1960)

A Hollywood epic starring Paul Newman, which tells the story of the foundation of the State of Israel, this is one of the first films on any of these lists.

Paul Newman, star of Exodus
Paul Newman, star of Exodus

In 1947, the SS Exodus set sail from France, packed with Jewish migrants hoping to reach British-mandate Palestine. The ship was intercepted by British forces and turned back to Europe. The refugees, mostly Holocaust survivors, were placed behind barbed wire in camps in Germany, a disastrous move by the British for which they came in for heavy criticism. This real-life story inspired first a novel in 1958, and then the epic film in 1960, starring Paul Newman, the Hollywood heart-throb of his day.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Another Gene Wilder classic, this time he plays a Polish rabbi travelling across the United States in a western/comedy.

Frisco_kid_ver2.jpg

One of Gene Wilder’s best, and most under-rated, films. His Polish accent might not be 100 percent convincing, but consider it part of the overall comic effect. There are plenty of Jewish gags which anyone and everyone will laugh at, including the one in the clip below, one of my favourites.

The Band’s Visit (2007)

A pleasant comedy like no other film on this list; subtle but with a point to make, funny but never aggressively so, a really enjoyable film

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The Israeli entertainment industry has developed a well-earned reputation in recent years for hard-hitting dramas and punchy political/military thrillers, whether on TV (Homeland, In Treatment, Fauda) or in film (Beaufort, Lebanon, Waltz with Bashir). The Band’s Visit is the antidote to this trend, a gentle, subtle comedy about the members of an Egyptian military orchestra who come to play in Israel, but get lost and accidentally find themselves sent to a small, isolated town in the desert. The film is about half in English as well, which makes it a great one for non-Hebrew speakers to watch and enjoy.

La Vita è Bella (1997)

A comedy set during the Holocaust was always going to be walking the finest of lines to avoid trivialising the topic or being seen as tasteless, and this one keeps its balance throughout.

santa-maria

Me being me, there was always going to be an Italian film on the list, and with the theme being Jewish films, it could only ever be this one. Countless times I’ve asked Italian friends “if you had to recommend only one Italian film, which would it be?” and almost every time, the answer is this one. A comedy which packs a serious emotional punch, this is film-making at it’s bravest, and ultimately, it won Roberto Benigni three Oscars, including best actor, which is no mean feat for a film in a foreign language. Below is the most iconic scene from the film, where Benigni, attempting to shield his son from the reality around them, translates the rules of the camp.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

This list wasn’t in any particular order, but the best has definitely been saved until last. Not just the greatest Jewish film of all time, but arguably one of the greatest films of all time, full stop.

fiddler-on-the-roof-9

The Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack took pride of place in my Jewish music playlist, and the film does likewise here. This film is a crash-course in what it means to be Jewish, for better and worse; a musical set in early 20th century Tsarist Russia with themes so universal that it speaks to generations of Jews from all over the world even today. And a special word for the star of the show, Haim Topol, in what is, in my opinion, the greatest cinematic performance of all time.

Honourable Mentions

  • Shoah (1985): I was cautious not to include too many Holocaust films, but this nine-hour-long documentary is one of the most vital works of Holocaust cinema ever produced, almost entirely composed of interviews with people from all different backgrounds who lived through the horrors of the war.
  • The Ten Commandments (1956): Starring Charlton Heston, this was the forerunner to The Prince of Egypt, a full-colour biblical epic which was the most expensive film ever made at the time.
  • Footnote (2011): From the same director as Beaufort, and also shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this film tells the story of the relationship between two professors in the Hebrew University Talmudic Studies department, a traditional, meticulous father and his charismatic, popular son. It may not sound like a riveting premise, but the film is exceptionally good, and won near-universal praise.

That’s it, there’s my list. Any you think I missed out, let me know. In the meantime, happy new year, and here’s to 2017!

Liked this post? Tell your friends! Didn’t like it? Tell them anyway, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
-The Wandering Jew-

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9 thoughts on “The Ultimate Jewish Film Guide

  1. Ah ah! Gene Wilder e Mel Brooks, non si puo’ sbagliare!
    Quest’anno le nostre feste coincidono… allora… chag Chanukah sameach! Spero sia giusto perchè la mia fonte è wikipedia! Io pensavo si scrivesse Hanukkah, comunque spero che ti diverta durante le vacanze!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In realtà ci sono tantissime variazioni, visto che non è una parola inglese, e vanno bene tutte.

      Infatti, e ti do un’anteprima, nell’elenco finale ci sarà un altro film di loro 🙂

      Grazie tanto, buon natale e buon capodanno!

      Like

  2. The frisko kid l’ho trovato, l’altro non l’ho ancora cercato.
    Una delle mie battute preferite è quando Abram insegue il fagiano (o pollo) ” I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to eat you. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to make you kosher.” 😂

    Like

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