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From Dark to Light

I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal

(Luminous Velocity)

Day Night Day Night

(IFC First Take)

The Valet

(Sony Pictures Classics)

He didn't want to be called a hero. He said he was just a survivor.The reasons for this distinction, far darker and deeper thanmodesty, are major themes in an engrossing documentary-- I HaveNever Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal. Aseveryone who could possibly care already knows, Wiesenthal, who wasimprisoned in German concentration camps for four

and a half years, spent most of his subsequent life tracking downNazi war criminals and helping to bring them to justice. This newdocumentary recounts that life--the relevant parts of it.

One passage in an interview sets the tone. Wiesenthal, who was inLvov with his mother in 1941, is asked what happened when theGermans arrived. He says that they packed his mother in a crowdedcattle car and sent her to a death camp. (He was sent elsewhere.)He says, "I hope that she died in the transport. " Then he asks theinterviewer, "Do you know what it means to say 'I hope that shedied in the transport'?"

Wiesenthal, born in what was then Austria-Hungary, was athirty-three-year- old architect when he was imprisoned. The filmincludes little about his life in various camps, though we aregiven sufficient reminders of what went on there. After he wasliberated in 1945--he remembers his first sight of an Americantank--he was, comprehensibly enough, impelled to devote his life tosearching out people who were responsible for the horror. Hismantra, "I have never forgotten you," may have a tinge ofsurvivor-guilt, but it was a driving and fertile force.

Funding for Wiesenthal's work had to be raised as he went along,operating mostly from an office in Vienna. What is remarkable inthe many interviews with him that are spliced throughout thispicture is that he was a thoroughly committed man, but not amonomaniac--his passion to extirpate enemies of humanity did notstrip him of his own.

Despite his accomplishments, Wiesenthal had critics, even amongJews. Some accused him of providing inaccurate statistics about thenumber of gentiles killed in the camps; some, of exaggerating hisaccomplishments. (The film includes a clip of a meeting in Viennawhere he was heckled from the audience.) Two instances of dissentstand out. He was attacked for exaggerating his contribution to thecapture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. But he claimed only that he hadprovided some material to help the captors. In 1986, when KurtWaldheim ran for the presidency of Austria and traces of his Naziaffiliations were discovered, Wiesenthal declined to join thecampaign against him. Excoriated for this behavior, he explainedthat the last thing he wanted was to bring a Nazi criminal suspectto trial and see him freed because of insufficient evidence.

This film, though it does not sanctify, is of course complimentaryto Wiesenthal. (It was produced by Moriah Films, the documentaryfilm production unit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles,though it was begun only after his death, in 2005.) I am notcompetent to sit as magistrate in the controversy about him, onlyto report that he is shown to be a carefully persistent man whoselife had been scarred with horror. It is an irresistible portrait.The film was co-written by the director Richard Trank and RabbiMarvin Hier, the dean of the center. Trank's directing is highlyskilled, aided by the fluent editing of Inbal B. Lessner. Thenarration is read by Nicole Kidman, as her tribute to the subject.It would be rude not to thank her.

Inevitably, the world of art has a new subject, the suicide bomber.In film there was Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, and in fictionJohn Updike's Terrorist. But a new film is in a way more daringthan the previous works on the subject that I know. It does notexplore political and social motives or spiritual consecration. Itis almost completely uninterested in the reasons for theprotagonist's behavior: it merely and sheerly enters her state ofmind as if it were entering a chamber, a ritual, a locus ofpossibility.

Day Night Day Night is the first fiction feature written anddirected by Julia Loktev (who has made a feature documentary). Thevisual and nearly silent quality of the beginning, which isgenerally maintained throughout the first half, almost suggeststhat we are being shown a second film on this subject. First, therewas a realistic documentary (which of course there wasn't), and nowwe are seeing, so to speak, the interior of the documentary'srealistic subject, the shadows and very strange peace within ayoung woman who is going to carry a bomb.

She is never given a name. She arrives at a bus terminal in New Yorkcarrying a bag and a tennis racquet. (Soon we understand that theracquet was intended to mislead anyone who might be watching.) Shegets in a car and is driven by a tacit chauffeur to a hotel in NewJersey; in her room the chauffeur draws the curtain and leaves. Shesays nothing when she is alone. She sleeps, then scrubs herselfthoroughly. The next day three hooded and masked men arrive, and,treating her most courteously, they prepare her for her job. Wedon't yet know definitely what it is, but we begin to suspect whenthe three men pray (a prayer in which she does not join). She iscarefully instructed in a false identity--name, address, familybackground, and so on. She surrenders her cell phone. She is thenstrapped with a bomb in a backpack and is shown how to detonateit.

Through all these proceedings she is obedient, unquestioning. Thenshe is driven to a subway station in Manhattan, and soundeffectively enters the film. Eventually she makes her way to TimesSquare. On her way, in and out of the subway, commonplace thingshappen. She buys some pretzels, a candied apple. She is neitherblithe nor tense. She shows no sense of approaching finality. Shesimply has stepped into this role of suicide bomber as she mighthave stepped into her clothes.

What is particularly chilling is that she seems to have acceptedthis task as a reasonable possibility to deal with problems of herown. (Once she murmurs something about "meeting him": whether "him"is a man or a deity is not clear.) Toward the end, after some minormishap, she tries to talk, via pay phone, with several people. Theycannot be reached. We then see the lights of Manhattan, theelectrically starred skies. The picture ends--in Times Square.

Loktev and the actress Luisa Williams take their film out of therealm of physical terror into a conceptual abstraction. Theirdaring is that they do not explain: they show. Their picture is adistillation of a state that could, if needed, be attached to oneset or another of bomber motivations. Here, uncannily rendered, isdas Ding an sich.

In the chapter on farce in his masterwork, The Life of the Drama,Eric Bentley writes: "Every form of drama has its rendezvous withmadness." The madness of farce, he says, is that "human life inthis art form is horribly attenuated. Life is a kind of universalmilling around, a rushing from bedroom to bedroom driven by demonsmore dreadful than sensuality."

The French writer-director Francis Veber is more at home in thismadhouse than anyone else now practicing: he is masterly andprolific. (Farceurs seem to be more prolific than otherplaywrights: are they telling us something about life?) Born in1937, he has been working in films since 1969 and has scattered alot of laughs along the way. Some of his work is known in thiscountry through transformation. One of his plays was the source ofa Billy Wilder film, Buddy Buddy. Another was the basis for theMike Nichols film The Birdcage. But he needs no American validation(although, in fact, he has worked in Hollywood). His Frenchfilms--that is, his films made and originally shown in France--areusually not only bright in themselves: they confirm Veber as one ofthe most thorough classicists now at work in film anywhere in theWestern world. Anyone who has seen The Closet or The Dinner Gamemay well have thought that, if such masters of French farce asFeydeau and Courteline and Labiche had seen those films, they wouldhave felt that they had not lived in vain.

Veber's latest, The Valet, presents one of his favorite actors (andmine), Daniel Auteuil, as a gonadic billionaire. He promises hisgorgeous blonde mistress, Alice Taglioni, that he will get divorcedand marry her. But his wife, played by the bilingual Englishactress Kristin Scott Thomas, owns major interests in the companieshe heads, so he has to persuade Madame that Taglioni is not hisbedmate, and that in fact she has a boyfriend. Then Auteuil has tofind a boyfriend who can be seen with his mistress. He selects a carvalet at his favorite restaurant to pose as that boyfriend andpersuades him with cash, while he persuades his mistress withpromises of marriage. (The valet, played by Gad Elmaleh, is namedFrancois Pignon, a name that recurs frequently in Veber scriptsjust because he likes it. No connection between the variousPignons.) And then Auteuil engages photographers to shoot, from awindow across the street, Taglioni and Elmaleh in bed. Thoughnothing sexual actually happens: the valet is in love with someoneelse.

Someone else! That puts it mildly. There is plenty else. Thesynopsis above is a drastic reduction of the plot(s) in The Valet.Once in a while, which is too often, the milling about seemsenforced rather than driven by the demons of whom Bentley wrote.But there can be no doubt that this film is the work of a man whosevery soul is committed to farce.

Auteuil, caroming from mistress to wife, again shows that hisversatility is something more than cleverness; it is internal.Elmaleh is unstuffily decent. And Taglioni, as the stunning blonde,is not miscast.