AJFF What to Watch: Films That Portray Film Noir

06/8/2020

A mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace saturates all of these films that display classic hallmarks of the film noir style. All are films that have formerly been featured at AJFF's annual festival. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Big Bad Wolves
A string of grizzly child murders puts a trio of characters on a collision course in this atmospheric, edge-of-the-seat revenge thriller featured at the 2014 AJFF. After a girl goes missing in the woods and is later found beheaded, suspicion immediately falls on a timid religious studies schoolteacher (Rotem Keinan) who is arrested but released due to a police blunder. Frustrated by the lack of justice, a renegade cop (Lior Ashenazi) and the victim's vengeful father (Ophir winner Tzahi Grad) take matters into their own hands by capturing, interrogating and tormenting the accused killer in the basement of a remote farmhouse. Their diabolical rage quickly spins out of control in a series of unpredictable (and often mordantly funny) plot twists that ingeniously toy with audience emotions and subvert genre tropes.

Budapest Noir
A hard-boiled reporter investigates the brutal murder of a prostitute, leading him into the dark underworld of 1930s pre-Nazi Hungary, in this stylish thriller featured at the 2019 AJFF. When the young Jewish woman is found beaten to death, no one is interested in solving the bizarre crime, except the cynical but doggedly inquisitive Zsigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik), who feels things are not what they seem. The murky clues eventually lead to a shadowy world of pornographers and brothels, crime syndicates and communist cells, and the highest echelons of power, just as Hungary’s fascist-leaning government prepares to align with Hitler. The more people try to scare him away, the more determined Gordon is to discover the truth. A politically-charged tale of corruption and betrayal, this richly atmospheric murder mystery will leave rapt audiences guessing until its surprising climax.

In the Shadow
A simple jewelry store heist unravels a larger Cold War conspiracy against Czechoslovakian Jews in this stylish noir political thriller featured at the 2014 AJFF. Honest police detective Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan) is directed to investigate a seemingly mundane robbery at a goldsmith's shop on a rainy night in 1950s Prague. When state secret police suddenly seize control of the case and pin the crime on Jewish immigrants accused of running aid to Israel, Hakl suspects anti-Semitic scapegoating. Waging an uphill battle against both Major Zenke (Sebastian Koch), an East German agent specializing in so-called Zionist crime, and the Soviet-corrupted Czech security apparatus, Hakl is undaunted in his quest for the truth even as it threatens his colleagues, country and family. Enhanced by atmospheric lensing and period details, writer director David Ondrícek delivers a powerful denouncement of the notorious Jewish Show Trials that condemned many innocents to death during the Communist era. 

The People vs. Fritz Bauer
Leading German actor Burghart Klaussner gives an electrifying performance as the German-Jewish prosecutor who defied his country to bring a notorious Nazi war criminal to justice in this drama featured at the 2016 AJFF. Its economy flourishing in the postwar 1950s, Germany grows increasingly apathetic about confronting its recent past. Against this backdrop, the implacable Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Klaussner) is committed to holding leaders of the Third Reich to account. He is stymied at every turn by authorities with Nazi ties, many of them former higher-ups under Hitler, now in top government positions. While slandered in the court of public opinion by foes seeking to silence him, the tenacious Bauer pursues a forbidden alliance with the Israeli spy agency Mossad to apprehend Holocaust mastermind Adolph Eichmann. Lars Kraume's propulsive direction, superb period set design and costumes, and moody jazz soundtrack give the sinister proceedings a noir edge. 

Shelter
Two women—a Mossad agent and a Lebanese informer—find themselves trapped in a labyrinth of deception, paranoia and intrigue, in this Israeli espionage thriller featured at the 2018 AJFF. Naomi (Neta Riskin) is an Israeli special agent assigned to protect Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), a Hezbollah turncoat recovering from identity-changing plastic surgery. Holed up for two weeks in a Hamburg safe house, they form an unexpected but fragile bond over a shared sense of loss and their difficult ties with maternity. As geopolitical and psychosexual tensions rise, both women begin to question their beliefs, loyalties and own unfixed identities. Veteran filmmaker Erin Riklis directs this nail-biting neo-noir potboiler, featuring penetrating performances by the award-winning lead actresses, and a standout supporting role by Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi.

The Wonders
An inscrutable cool-cat loafer, a hard-boiled gumshoe and a knockout femme fatale get mixed up in a labyrinthine religious conspiracy within the dark heart of Jerusalem, in this fantastical and strange adventure featured at the 2014 AJFF. Ariel (Ori Hizkiah), a bartender and graffiti artist who lives in the slums of the Old City, is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Efrat Gosh) who has recently become Orthodox. Late one night, Ariel's pleasantly mundane existence is turned upside down when he encounters the mysterious Rabbi Knafo (Yehuda Levi), a modern-day prophet with special clairvoyant powers and a cult of finagled followers, being held captive in an abandoned building. A pushy private detective (Adir Miller) and his lovely redheaded client (Yuval Scharf) soon rope a reluctant Ariel into a plan to use his neighboring apartment as a stakeout. Thus opens a rabbit hole of conspiracies, red herrings, unlikely alliances, quirky characters and cartoons that come to life.