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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



New York Jewish Film Festival 2019

The 28th annual New York Jewish Film Festival was presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center from January 9 – 22. Among the more than 70 Jewish film festivals held in North America each year, the NYJFF is the largest and among the oldest. NYJFF is perfectly situated in a city where as of 2016 more than 1.1 million Jews live, amounting to 12 % of the total population. Among the NYJFF innovations provided this year are a new annual program focusing on a production by a female filmmaker deserving broader recognition and the first time presentation of an Israeli television series, featuring this year the much discussed mini-series AUTONOMIES by Yehonatan Indursky. The 2019 program included 32 features and shorts, including 11 US and 11 New York premieres. There where screenings of feature films, documentary programs, and restored films along with some silent classics, . Numerous films were presented by film makers and critics or followed by Q&A sessions.  In his masterclass Yehonatan Indursky covered the difference between creating for film and television, and analyzed his approach in producing AUTONOMIES. Another notable seminar that featured a specialized focus was PUBLITZERS’S WORLD: THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN A FAKE NEWS UNIVERSE.

Over the 14 days of the festival more than 10,000 individuals attended 42 screenings and the two special programs. Support for the festival was provided by the Martin and Doris Payson Fund for Film and Media, several other foundations, numerous individuals, public agencies like the NY State Council of the Arts, as well several Consulates General including Israel and Germany.

Produced in 1924 by the Austrian Hanns Karl Breslauer, THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS  is a recently restored silent  expressionist feature that provides a utopian vision of what would happen a decade after national socialists assume power in 1933 in  Germany and 1938 in Austria.  Based on the 1922 novel with the same title name by Hugo Bettauer, the film depicts the expulsion of Jews from Vienna and their return. Breslauer's filming was interrupted by the Nazis in 1924, and Bettauer was murdered by them the following year. The film is considered the first cinematic documentation of antisemitism due to its depictions of the manipulation of the political and economic process by the Christian Social Party to enrich its leaders. It is based in part on Karl Lueger, the former mayor of Vienna who brought electricity and affordable housing  to the city but made anti-Semitism the central piece of his political party.  THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS shows how bourgeois party leaders manage to expel and impoverish the Jews of Vienna and gain popular support with the party’s promise of a better life. Once the Jews are forced to leave, economic and cultural institutions collapse and rampant unemployment sets in.  The disrupting absence of Jews causes poverty and the workers happily embrace a radical shift in policy to enable the Jews to come back and return to the status quo. 

Amos Gitai’s Israeli-French film A TRAMWAY IN JERUSALEM is a superbly crafted 2018 feature which premiered at the festival. Presenting a kaleidoscope of interactions on or next to the Light Rail Red Line tramway which connects Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem, Gitai captures portraits and stories of the people riding the tramway. He is cuts across nationalities, ethnic affiliations, age groups, and genders and presents a fragmented yet readily accessible image of contemporary Israel. We encounter a microcosm of divided Israel during the train ride, transit cops enforcing submission, spontaneous connections among people during a brief train ride, and learn how the conflicts surrounding the travelers on the outside leak into the interactions on the tram.  Neither pessimism nor optimism prevails in these brief passages, but everyday life charged with poetic overtones provide us with a small guide for interpretation. What was most startling in this ethnographic tramway coverage of everyday behavior, compared to what one would observe on the New York City subways, are the communicative interactions between people. They talk to each other rather than being glued to their cell phones, a point Amos Gitai brings home in an elegant fashion.

For me, the most startling and revealing production screened at the film festival is the 2018 miniseries AUTONOMIES by Yehonatan Indursky, which was shown for the first time in the United States. This six- part, superbly shot series, depicts an alternate Israel in which the country is divided into the “Haredi Autonomy” zone of Jerusalem governed by the ultraorthodox and the liberal secular zone governed from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is strictly separated from the rest of the country, has its own judicial and law enforcing system, and everyday life is firmly governed by ultraorthodox Haredi rules. The conflict between liberal democratic morality and authoritarian orthodoxy are obvious and the borderline to violence precarious. This dystopian presentation of the of Israel results from past violent clashes between these groups; clashes that killed many people and were resolved by setting up the autonomous Haredi zone of Jerusalem.  Though some slight exaggerations transpire, Indursky presents picture perfect images of the Haredi life in their zone, the interactions between the religious officials and functionaries, the police force, and the people they govern.  Indursky was raised in an ultraorthodox family and graduated from a yeshiva. His parents were observant, and his father served as a cantor. As Indursky explains his identity are memories and no matter what happen he will remain a Haredi child.  He created with Ori Elon the acclaimed television series SHTISEL, a 24-episode series first broadcast in 2013 that received 11 Israeli film awards. It is still available on Netflix and other streaming services. The series focuses on the life of an extended family living in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, following the Haredi’s community rules, which are not as extreme as those adhered to by the residents of Mea She’arimi. They are somehow more open to secularism, assuring interpersonal conflicts for some members of the Shtisel family.

AUTONOMIES provides a possible future Israel with divergent development of the secular and the religious. Liberals live in the State of Israel with Tel Aviv as their capital.  The ultraorthodox live in the “Haredi Autonomy” of a walled off Jerusalem, protecting their identity by rigorously enforcing codes of behavior. Access is to either territory requires a visa. The Secular Jews on the outside resent that they support the “parasite” Hiradi enclave yet realize that this territorial arrangement ensures a modicum of peace and precludes the past open violence between the groups and a possible civil war.  The Haredi Chief Rabbi Alexander opposes any accommodation with the state of Israel and  arranges the kidnapping of a little girl from the State of Israel to join the Haredis  in Jerusalem

AUTONOMIES with its narrative of intersecting religious and political issues and presentation of the personal conflicts rooted in them are an outstanding topical achievement by Yehonatan Idursky. He manages to articulate an original story about an alternate reality Israel  The two communities depicted  fear that the values they hold are threatened by each other. Growing influence by religious political parties have restricted personal freedom. Unrestrained communication and the secular lifestyle is a perceived threat to the strictures imposed by the ultra-orthodox faith.  In this six-part series we encounter superb acting, scripting, and settings that make the problems Israel faces in its culture and political wars, and its closely linked clashes between orthodoxies and modern life very transparent.  It is difficult to reconcile the culture and lifestyles of both groups. In the secular liberal group families are small, frequently of short durations, and there is no embedment in the larger community. Religion plays a small role, if at all, and contemporary living is defined by individualism and an orientation to consumerism. For the ultraorthodox Jews the opposite holds. Families are large and extended and having many children is part of the religious ethos. The people are firmly integrated in the religious community guided often by a dominant rabbi.  Their everyday life is determined by subordination to religious codes suspending the modern expectations of consumption, sexual equality and emancipation. The ultra-orthodox community restricts severely the individual freedoms embraced by adherents of the secular liberal orientation. In contemporary Israel having an autonomous Haredi sector is hardly a realistic option since such growing community cannot be sustained economically.


Claus Mueller



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