Koch, Elvis, Eichmann Get Spotlight in Jewish Film Fest

A trio of documentaries dealing with famous (and famously opinionated) local heroes punctuates the New York Jewish Film Festival, which returns to Lincoln Center for two weeks starting tomorrow.

“Koch” is about the plus-size personality, now 88, who served as the city’s mayor from 1978 to 1989. “Joe Papp in Five Acts” is a portrait of the late impresario and founder of the Public Theater.

There’s a lot about Papp’s left-wing politics and his support of the counterculture. Among the vast catalogue of shows the Public presented reflecting the turmoil of their times were “Hair,” “The Normal Heart” and the plays of Vaclav Havel. There are interviews with, among others, Olympia Dukakis, Larry Kramer and Meryl Streep.

“The Art of Spiegelman” addresses the life and work of Art Spiegelman, the underground-comics hero who’s still best known as the creator of “Maus.”

The festival, the 22nd, opens with the sparkling “AKA Doc Pomus,” a remembrance of the irresistible Brooklyn-born character who wrote “This Magic Moment,” “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and a string of hits for Elvis Presley, among them “Viva Las Vegas.”

Ben E. King, Dion and Doc’s biographer, Alex Halberstadt, tell a series of great stories about him. A childhood polio victim, Doc needed crutches to walk. It was at his wedding reception, as he handed off his bride to one dance partner after another, that he conceived “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

Martha Graham

Two more terrific documentaries help anchor the festival. The explosively exciting “Let’s Dance!” runs 52 minutes but contains enough material for a 10-episode miniseries.

Modern dance has been one of Israel’s best exports. Israeli choreographers talk about the roots of their art in folk dance; about the rebirth in Israel of the European avant-garde that the Nazis had stamped out; and about Martha Graham’s outsize influence on the Batsheva Dance Company.

The dances are shown only in snippets. But the end result, thanks in large part to superb editing, isn’t a frustrated audience but one that’s hungry for more.

“The Trial of Adolf Eichmann” has less to offer in terms of accomplished filmmaking; its bland-sounding narration recalls old TV documentaries. But the interviews and the archival footage it gathers are electrifying. Eichmann sits there as impassively as a man talking to his accountant, never giving any hint that he recognizes the enormity of his crimes.

Bearing Witness

The captured Nazi war criminal’s eight-month trial -- held in Jerusalem in 1961 and preserved on videotape -- marked the first time that Holocaust survivors were able to tell their story on a world stage.

The film includes a courtroom shot of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, reporting what became “Eichmann in Jerusalem” for the New Yorker -- perhaps the best-known document the trial produced.

So Margarethe von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” makes a fitting closing-night film. It covers four years in the writer’s life, centering on the Eichmann period and the backlash against her theory of “the banality of evil.”

“Hannah Arendt” wasn’t screened in advance, but it looks more promising than the fiction films that were. The Argentinean comedy “All In” is about a truth-challenged, post-vasectomy financier who tries to restart an old romance. Its most original feature is an Orthodox Jewish headbanger band.

Israeli Drama

The Israeli drama “The Fifth Heaven,” set in 1944 in an orphanage for girls, tells a story of loss, deprivation, heartbreak and regret. See it when you’re in the mood for grim.

Music is at the core of several other selections. “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” delves into the origins and influence of the Jewish-wedding perennial that’s been covered by (it sometimes seems) everybody. Among the talking heads (not all of them Jewish) are Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis and Glen Campbell.

“Cabaret Berlin -- The Wild Scene” explores, in the form of a cabaret show, the famously decadent musical nightlife of the Weimar Republic. On a related theme, “Max Raabe in Israel” shows what happened when the Berlin singer and his Palast Orchester took their classic-Berlin-cabaret act on tour in 2010.

The distinguished critic J. Hoberman presents the 1934 horror classic “The Black Cat,” starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It was directed by the Czech-born Edgar G. Ulmer, who went on to make several films in Yiddish and, most famously, the scuzzy 1945 noir “Detour.” With the aid of other clips, Hoberman will talk about the Jewish connection to the horror genre.

The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, takes over Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater from Jan. 9 through Jan. 24. Information: +1-212-875-5601; http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-jewish-film-festival-2013.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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