AJFF What to Watch: Films Based on True Stories Part 2

09/7/2020

True stories are at the root of these films formerly featured at AJFF's annual festival. And, in case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Chariots of Fire
Based on a true story, Chariots of Fire is the internationally acclaimed drama of rival track heroes who compete for very different reasons in the 1924 Paris Olympics. The film crosscuts between the lives of Eric Liddell, a devout missionary who runs for God's glory, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice (portrayed by Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, respectively). The ensemble cast shines, particularly Sir John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson as disapproving Cambridge snobs and Ian Holm as veteran coach Sam Mussabini. Ranked among the greatest British films, the drama triumphed at the 1981 Oscars with wins in Best Picture, Costume Design and Writing categories, as well as Best Original Score for the classic Vangelis synthesizer soundtrack. Featured at the 2011 AJFF for its 30th Anniversary.

The Jewish Cardinal
A dramatic clash of ecclesiastical politics and spiritual soul-searching, The Jewish Cardinal is the remarkable true story of the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who, while maintaining his Jewish identity, became leader of the French church and close confidant to the Pope. Jean-Marie Lustiger (born Aaron) converted to Roman Catholicism as a teenager, later joining the priesthood and quickly rising within the ranks to become adviser to Pope John Paul II. A maverick outsider, he utilized his dual identity to advance Jewish-Catholic relations, a unique platform that earned him both friends and enemies. His allegiances are further tested by a unique Carmelite monastery operating within the walls of Auschwitz, the Holocaust death camp where his mother perished. Estranged from his father (Henri Guybet) who survived the war, Jean-Marie's cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana) becomes his only remaining family link. Laurent Lucas brings intensity and heartache to his role as the cardinal who faces a crisis of faith while Aurélien Recoing gives a tour de force portrayal of the reform-minded pontiff. Featured at the 2014 AJFF.

Orthodox Stance
This documentary, featured at the 2008 AJFF, tells the story of Dmitriy “Star of David” Salita, the gifted young Russian immigrant who is making history as a professional boxer and fervently Orthodox Jew. A true story in contrasts, this remarkable film provides an insider’s account of the balance between strict observance of Jewish law and the demands of the professional boxing circuit. Raise din Brooklyn after his parents escaped anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Salita developed a passion for boxing. After winning the New York City amateur title, he embarked on a pro boxing career while also renewing his commitment to faith: abstaining from boxing on the Sabbath, keeping kosher and studying Torah daily. Traveling form Dmitriy’s rough-and-tumble Flatbush neighborhood, to amateur urban gyms, to the grandiose arenas of Vegas and Atlantic City, director Jason Hutt explores this seemingly incompatible clash of cultures and the intimate relationships between a man and his relation.

Prisoner of Paradise
This documentary tells the chilling true story of Kurt Gerron, a beloved German-Jewish cabaret and film star who met his untimely end at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Gerron enjoyed much success in Belrin in the 1920's and 1930's, co-starring onscreen with the legendary Marlene Dietrich, and singing onstage in the original production of the "Threepenny Opera." Engrossed in his career and too famous to feel threatened, Gerron naively refused to see the looming dark cloud of Nazism until it was too late. His eventual willingness to collaborate with his Nazi captors resulted in one of the most perverse propaganda films of the era. This Oscar-nominated documentary utilizes a fascinating mix of archival footage, film clips, interviews, and recreations to powerful effect. In the end, Prisoner of Paradise forms a morality tale about the cost of survival, and how one man's conceit led to both his downfall and to an appalling deceit that many Jews paid for with their lives. Shot on location in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, and Prague. Features a superbly delivered narration by actor Ian Holm. Directed by Oscar-winner Malcolm Clarke and Emmy-winner Stuart Sender. Featured at the 2005 AJFF.

Saviors in the Night
The riveting, real-life drama of a Jewish family that found refuge with Westphalian farmers during WWII, is a powerful, humanity-affirming story in the face of barbarism. Escaping the last of the death camp deportations, the Spiegel family is offered safe hiding for nearly three years by salt-of-the-earth German peasants who reject fascism and put themselves at grave risk without hesitation. Danger lurks constantly as SS officers, Nazi youth groups and frightened citizens threaten to expose the refugees and their protectors. Today, the names of these courageous farmers are immortalized at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. Based on the memoirs of the now 97-year-old Marga Spiegel and featuring strong performances by the ensemble cast, this drama is a refreshingly unsentimental memorial to these silent heroes. Featured at the 2010 AJFF.

Sonny Boy
Historical events threaten to destroy a forbidden interracial romance in the sweeping epic, the Dutch entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Waldemar (Sergio Hasselbaink), a handsome and ambitious young black immigrant from Surinam, travels to Holland, the land of his colonial masters, to be educated. There he meets Rika (Ricky Koole), an older, middle-class Dutch mother and free spirit who garners contempt from her philandering husband. Against all odds and in the face of racial intolerance, they fall in love and have a child out of wedlock (the eponymous Sonny Boy, adorable Daniel van Wijk). The star-crossed couple survives scandal only to be tested again by the terrors of WWII and their rescue of Jewish refugees. Based on a scandalous true story, the drama is the screen version of Annejet van der Zijl’s bestselling novel. Featured at the 2012 AJFF.