Read about this week’s films. 

“Simon and Théodore”

Mikael Buch’s new dramedy “Simon and Théodore” is a unique take on the “buddy film.” Simon, a patient who releases himself prematurely from a psychiatric ward, is anxious to see his heavily pregnant wife, Rivka. Rivka is a rabbi who is instructing Théodore, a problematic teenager, preparing for his bar mitzvah. Simon makes his way to Rivka, who concludes that her self-harming husband is not emotionally equipped to deal with fatherhood.

Théodore, the son of a single non-Jewish mother, tries to get his negligent Jewish father’s attention by studying Judaism. The father, awkward and confused, does not know how to appreciate his son’s overture or his diligent studying of Hebrew and Torah. On the day of his bar mitzvah, Théodore’s parents fail to show up for the ceremony and he bolts out of the synagogue. Simon is there and decides that the only way to prove Rivka wrong about not being able to care for his soon-to-be-born son is to follow Théodore.

At first, the two penniless misfits are short-tempered and losing whatever sanity they have left. Simon pursues Théodore through the streets on a cold Parisian night, and the two end up having a meal at a restaurant for which they cannot pay. Forced to choose between being arrested and calling someone to bail them out, Théodore contacts his father. It turns out that after all these years, Théodore’s father loves him but cannot be a parent to him. Similarly, Simon cannot take on the responsibilities of parenthood for his own reasons.

Rivka goes out looking for the hapless pair and meets Théodore’s mother, Edith. Initially, Edith blames Rivka for Théodore’s disappearance. She quickly bonds with the pregnant woman, who goes into labor early. The two need one another as much as Simon and Théodore depend on each other.

“Simon and Théodore” is a small film, but it exudes a certain charm and depth. Each of the characters relies on one another to move forward. Théodore needs Simon to escape. Théodore’s father needs his son to forgive him. Rivka and Edith need each other for the sake of their children. And, ultimately, Simon demonstrates that his infant son needs him.


“Satan & Adam”

“Satan & Adam” (Courtesy image)
“Satan & Adam” (Courtesy image)

Scott Balcerek’s documentary “Satan & Adam” was recorded over the course of 23 years. The film tells the blues-playing duo’s story and was featured at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Satan, whose real name is Sterling Magee, is busking in the shadow of the Apollo Theatre in the 1980s and ‘90s. His virtuoso guitar playing, outstanding drumming skills and smoky voice always attracts an appreciative crowd. It turns out that Satan has played with some of the greats, including Etta James, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. But he gave up that life to play in the streets. Adam Gussow, a white Jewish ivy-leaguer—whom one day happens to wander in Satan’s neighborhood—is drawn to the one-man-band street performer. Adam is a talented harmonica player, and he musters the courage to ask Satan to jam with him.

The two end up musically complementing one another and become an unexpected yet popular attraction in Harlem. It is the late 1980s when New York City is a racial powder keg. Riots are occurring in Crown Heights, and the city’s blacks and Jews are at odds with one another. Against this backdrop, Satan and Adam play together so often they become a regular act: Satan & Adam.

Eventually, the duo is discovered after U2 films a segment of “Rattle and Hum” in the vicinity. Regular club gigs come at dizzying speed. Satan & Adam then make it onto the main stage at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. It’s quite a moment for the two men, but they abruptly split up soon after their appearance. Illness and economic circumstances are partly responsible for the duo’s breakup. Magee ends up in a nursing home in Florida and Gussow takes a job as an English professor at the University of Mississippi.

Along with extensive footage of Satan & Adam’s evolution, this is also an in-depth character study. Magee and Gussow defy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that there are no second acts in American lives by making a second and even third comeback. The documentary benefits from Gussow and Magee’s cooperation with Balcerek. In the end, these two seemingly mismatched men became legendary musicians and good friends.

“The Accountant of Auschwitz”

"The Accountant of Auschwitz" (Courtesy image)
“The Accountant of Auschwitz” (Courtesy image)

Matthew Shoychet’s documentary “The Accountant of Auschwitz” presents a post-modern perspective on the history of the Holocaust. The film’s main subject is 93-year-old Oskar Groening, who went on trial in 2015 for the deaths of Jews who were brought to Auschwitz. Groening’s trial is controversial in that he never personally shot or gassed anyone in Auschwitz. But he was on the platforms when the trains arrived, and he tallied the possessions of the Jews when they arrived.

As he testified in court, Groening was a witness to atrocities that included the murder of a crying baby who was beaten to death. In one of the film’s chilling moments, he matter-of-factly tells the court he would have shot the baby instead to end its suffering quickly. Ironically, what landed Groening in the defendant’s chair was an interview he gave to the BBC in 2005. He was incensed at Holocaust deniers and sought to set the record straight about what he had witnessed at Auschwitz.

Shoychet explores whether ex-Nazi nonagenarians like Groening should be put on trial. As Alan Dershowitz, one of the commentators in the film, points out, if Germany had diligently prosecuted Nazis after the war, they would not have bothered to go after a cog in the wheel like Groening. There were 800,000 SS—only 60,000 were charged with murder, and just 124 were convicted.

The standard for arresting and prosecuting aging ex-Nazis changed after the 2011 conviction of John Demjanjuk. Authorities pursued anyone involved in the Nazi killing machine, regardless of age or whether they directly murdered anyone. Demjanjuk had acquired American citizenship and lived in the Midwest for years before he was accused of murdering Jews as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.

The optics of Groening’s case pose the question of whether it makes sense to prosecute someone 70 years after the fact. Peter Singer, a Princeton University philosopher and ethicist, bluntly asks, “Are you still punishing the person who committed the crime?”

As Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1945, asserts, “Age is no defense.” Moreover, there should be no statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes, the 98-year-old lawyer says authoritatively.

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