NEW YORK — `HISTORY is always someone's account of events, always someone's version of the `story,' " writes archivist Wanda Bershen in the notes to a film festival called "Artists, Activists and Ordinary People: Jews in 20th Century Europe," held recently at the Walter Reade Theater here.
Recognizing that history is never wholly "objective" but inevitably reflects the perceptions and prejudices of the people who record it, this festival presented a series of "fiction" and "documentary" films that refuse to stay in their own neat categories, but mix different elements of fact and speculation in the search for a more complex understanding of the past.
A second objective of the film festival was to overcome the perception that World War II and related occurrences are the sole dominating events in modern Jewish history, by stressing the role played by European Jews in the first half of this century. Given the great respect for the written word in Jewish tradition, it is not surprising that writers - as diverse as modernist Franz Kafka and traditionalist Sholem Aleichem - helped inspire more than one work on the program.
A striking film that reflects all the festival's priorities is "Labyrinth," a German production directed by Jaromil Jires, a respected Czech filmmaker. The protagonist, played by the popular star Maximilian Schell, is a movie director visiting Prague in order to research a film about Kafka.
Walking the city's streets and pondering the past of Eastern Europe, he begins to see Kafka's life - outwardly quiet, but seething with anxiety within - as part of a hugely complicated maze that includes the torments of Kafka's own experience, the bitter ills of Europe during his time, and the rise of Nazism that came soon afterward. As the on-screen filmmaker puts his thoughts together, Mr. Jires's film itself becomes a labyrinth in which we wander through aspects of history, biography, speculation, and
recreated episodes from such Kafka masterpieces as "The Trial" and "The Penal Colony," which diagnosed certain 20th-century evils long before they erupted into fascism.
A DRAMATIC Russian film called "Get Thee Out!" presents a different set of historical and literary concerns. Directed by Dimitri Astrakhan, this Russian production is based on stories by such authors as Aleichem and Isaac Babel, whose themes are woven seamlessly into a lively screenplay. The main character is a dairy farmer named Motl, who tries his best to live a happy and hearty life despite domestic challenges, such as his daughter's secret marriage to a husband who isn't Jewish, and more frightening signs of the times, such as smoldering anti-Semitism in the area around Motl's small community.
"Get Thee Out!" is much folksier and funnier than "Labyrinth," but it's no less serious in its warnings about the insidiousness of bigotry.
Stunningly photographed by Yuri Worontsov, it is distributed in the United States by First Run Features, a releasing company based in New York, and began a regular run at the Walter Reade theater.
The festival was co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
One hopes that this thoughtfully programmed festival, having completed its second annual appearance, keeps returning on a regular basis.