Indie film casts sincere shadow on Holocaust memories

Time is running out for the oldest remaining Holocaust survivors to confide, confess and reconcile with their children, and for their children to do likewise with theirs.

At least in the movies, that is, where every decades-old psychic scar is vividly displayed and every resentment bitterly aired. Smarter, sharper and a good deal less bathetic than most films in the genre, Jeremy Davidson’s modest independent feature “Tickling Leo” is a surprisingly generous and soulful addition.

The New York–set “Tickling Leo” played for a week in Manhattan in September, and has since popped up in a few scattered theaters across North America. Although no upcoming Bay Area screenings are slated, the 91-minute film currently is available on DVD.

Davidson shot the film, which was co-produced by his wife, actress Mary Stuart Masterson, on a tightly concentrated schedule, but you wouldn’t guess that from the fervently entwined performances, painstakingly structured screenplay and gracefully composed cinematography.

“Tickling Leo” insinuates us into the story through an attractive Manhattan couple in their late 20s. Prompted by a High Holy Days call from his uncle, Zak (Daniel Sauli) takes his non-Jewish girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse) on a spur-of-the-moment drive out of town to visit the father he hasn’t seen or spoken with in a long while.


Daniel Sauli (left) and Lawrence Pressman in “Tickling Leo”

They are shocked to discover that Warren (Lawrence Pressman), a retired, dissolute professor living a hermit’s existence in a rustic lakeside house, is dangerously delusional and suspicious. The lovely fall foliage serves to soften and counterbalance Warren’s deterioration in our eyes, but also underscores that he’s in the late autumn of his life.

Father and son barely acknowledge the chronic awkwardness between them and the ways in which each long ago disappointed the other, and it falls on the empathetic yet strong-willed Delphina to serve as icebreaker, catalyst and mediator.

The tension is exploded, at least initially, by the arrival of Zak’s comically bawdy Israeli uncle (Ronald Guttman) and his (third) wife. Crucial clues are supplied by this ad hoc family reunion, notably about choices that Warren and Robbie’s father made in Hungary during the war.

It’s not giving too much away to say that the pivotal incidents were triggered by the fateful decision of Rezso Kasztner, the head of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Hungary, to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann and save a single trainload of more than 1,600 Jews.

“Tickling Leo” smoothly shifts its point of view from Zak to his father and, late in the film, to the previous generation (embodied by Eli Wallach). As such, the film speaks to and for European Jews who endured the Holocaust, as well as their offspring born decades later in America and marked by events they did not experience and could not fathom.

The movie risks trafficking in types — the demented coot who becomes lucid

for critical bits of exposition or confession, the non-Jewish girlfriend who serves as a conduit for reconciliation, the twinkly-eyed grandfather with the backbone of steel — but, largely through the actors’ intensity and freshness, successfully avoids tapping into clichés.

Although the film includes the requisite dramatic venting of grievances, it’s clear pretty early on that writer-director Davidson and his collaborators are less interested in the sharp edges of resentment than the curving path to reconciliation.

Indeed, “Tickling Leo” is distinguished

by an unexpected undercurrent of sincerity that, amid the current plethora of self-consciously hip and clever indie dramas, feels somewhat old-fashioned.

That’s not a criticism, or even a left-handed compliment, but an acknowledgement that “Tickling Leo” is serious about honoring, rather than exploiting, the experiences of Holocaust survivors. And, of course, their equally innocent children.

Cancer survivor’s  musical comes to S.F.

Singer-actor Charlie Lustman will bring his one-man show, “Made Me Nuclear,” to San Francisco for a performance at the Marsh. The show is based on his experience battling a rare form of cancer that required the removal of much of his upper jaw.

A native of Los Angeles and son of Holocaust survivors, Lustman had a career writing and producing music before his illness. He decided to turn the story into a humor-filled song cycle, which he set down in a CD, also called “Made Me Nuclear” and released last year.

“Made Me Nuclear” plays 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia, S.F. Tickets: $10-$15. Information: (415) 826-5750 or online at

“Tickling Leo” is available on DVD at $19.99. It is also available from Netflix.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.