Films on ventriloquism, mikvah to premiere in South Bay series

In its Northern California theater premiere, "Genghis Cohn," directed by Elijah Moshinsky, will open at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29 at the 306-seat Towne Theater, 1433 The Alameda, San Jose.

No prints remained of the 1993 BBC dark comedy, according to Gloria Turk, chair of the film search committee. So the South Bay Jewish Film Series decided to spring for a reprint, which could be made from the existing negative.

"We thought it was such an important film, and so well done, that we managed to convince [the BBC] that we would fund a reprint if it was within our budget," says Turk of the production, which starred Diana Rigg, Antony Sher and Robert Lindsay.

The reprint cost around $1,000, she adds. But it was worth the price.

"I actually think `Genghis Cohn' is one of the most important films I've seen," she says.

The film opens in a German cabaret in the 1930s. A ventriloquist who has given himself the name Genghis Cohn is ridiculing Hitler, using a doll that resembles a little Adolf.

"Of course the police come and throw him out and beat him up," Turk says.

In researching the topic for the film's program notes, Turk discovered that "during the '30s in Germany, the cabaret was really the only outlet for political dissent and satire."

However, writers and actors who performed in Weimar Republic cabarets were eventually sent to concentration camps or deported after Nazis raided the clubs.

Repeat screenings of "Genghis Cohn" will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30 and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2.

Two more films in the series, "The Golet in the Valley" and "Leni," will also have Northern California premieres.

"The Golet in the Valley" — slated to screen at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 5 and 6, and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 — was originally made for Czech television in 1993.

Shot in Ukraine and directed by Zeno Dostal, it tells the story of small-town Jewish life. When someone discovers the local mikvah (ritual bath) is no longer pure, the villagers are thrown into an uproar.

"Leni" — directed by Leo Hiemer and scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 12 and 13, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16 — tells of an aging, childless farm couple in 1930s Bavaria. The couple looks after a baby girl given up by her mother, and when rumors surface of the child's Jewish ancestry, the village atmosphere becomes menacingly hostile.

Turk and her crew of 25 to 30 volunteers, including her husband Hal, tracked down the films by searching the Internet, browsing through catalogs and checking out other film festivals.

Still, Turk was surprised that the South Bay Jewish Film Series had scooped the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival with "Genghis Cohn," "The Golet in the Valley" and "Leni."

"We really were quite surprised they missed these three films," she says. "They're usually ahead of us. Every time we think we've got a film they haven't shown, they have."

"Mendel," for example — screening at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2 — received its Bay Area premiere in the 1997 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Directed by Alexander Rosler and photographed in Norway, Denmark and Germany, it is the story of a poor Jewish immigrant family who leaves Germany and settles in Norway in 1954.

Turk, in her research, was surprised to learn that 1851 "was the first year Jews were allowed to immigrate to Norway."

The story unfolds through the eyes of 9-year-old Mendel, who wrestles with adult issues including prejudice, Jewish identity and his family's war secrets.

"A Tickle in the Heart" — screening at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 19 and 20, and at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23 — had its U.S. premiere in the 1996 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Directed by Stefan Schwietert and shot in the United States, "Tickle" follows klezmer musicians Max, Willie and Julie Epstein, now in their 70s, on gigs through Florida, Berlin and Brooklyn, N.Y.

A 20-minute short, "When Shirley Met Florence," filmed in Canada in 1994, will follow "Tickle."

Florence and Shirley met more than 50 years ago in grade school. Their love of music cements their friendship, which endures through Florence's discovery of her lesbian identity and Shirley's marriage to Florence's brother.

Finally, "The Righteous Enemy" will be presented at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 9. The documentary reveals the heroism of highly placed Italians, who with ingenious bureaucratic evasions and literal roadblocks, willfully defied Mussolini's orders to turn over Italian Jews to the Nazis. Their efforts saved more than 40,000 from death during World War II. It was shot in Italy and England in 1987 by Joseph Rachlitz.

Funded entirely by ticket sales, the South Bay Jewish Film Series operates under the umbrella of the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Greater San Jose.

"They give us office space and telephone service," says Turk.

Single ticket prices start at $3.50, advance purchase only, for seniors and students during Sunday matinees ($5 for Wednesday- and Thursday-night features). General admission tickets for any show are $7.50. All prices are 50 cents higher at the door.

Subscription prices for the series are $10 for Sunday matinees and $18 for Wednesday or Thursday shows for seniors and students, and $25 general admission for any day.

Subscription prices do not include the 4:30 p.m. Sunday showings of "Mendel" and "The Righteous Enemy."

Patrons, who pay $65 for the series, are entitled to reserved seating until 10 minutes before showtime and attend an opening night buffet at Temple Emanu-El, 1010 University Ave., San Jose.

For information, call (408) 345-7081.