Film-maker Benny Brunner gives voice to a variety of people – from well-known scholars, journalists, artists and intellectuals as well as high-ranking army personal – to the ordinary citizen. The wide range of the topics that he covers is remarkable and he provides us with important insights not only into the past but also current day issues that are not covered by the mainstream media or films. My students certainly found his films very useful for understanding Israeli society as well as gaining an insight into the disaster that befell and befalls the Palestinians to this very day (and has befallen the Jews in the past). Despite the horrors, pain, suffering and injustices that he portrays in his films, Brunner nevertheless manages at times to bring humour into his films and thus demonstrates the extraordinary resilience of the people he films.
Brunner is one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. His films cover a wide range of topics from Poles who look for their Jewish origins to the rise of the neo-Nazis in Hungary. In Kosher Friendly (co-directed with Joseph Rochlitz) young Poles with one Jewish parent are negotiating their complex identities by celebrating Christmas and going to Church and having the desire to open a Jewish restaurant but being unable for financial reasons to keep it strictly kosher. School children are looking for the gravestone of a Jewish relative in one of the remaining Jewish cemeteries and the film also touches upon how Poland has come to term with its past (or not). An important and very scary film is his The Erpatak Model. Erpatak is a small village in Eastern Hungary controlled by an ultranationalist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma mayor where the unemployed are being exploited to get their meagre unemployment support. The paranoid sociopath who talks about the “International Masonic Jewish Network” thinks nothing of harassing poor people – like a woman collecting some wood from the forest and humiliating an elderly lady whose house is about to collapse over her head. Militarism is of course another feature – here the camera moves beautifully showing black boots – of the mayor and his brain-washed young relative. The association is clear and becomes even clearer when Brunner films a paramilitary group that sings the forbidden part of the German anthem. Taking children away from opponents and “undesirables” is another feature in this model that its admirers want to see imposed on the whole of Hungary.
But most of his films deal with Israel and it is in this context that I came across his films when teaching a course on Israel/Palestine, the story of a land, 1882 to the present. His film, The Seventh Million – The Israelis and the Holocaust is based on Tom Segev’s book that investigates how Israel dealt with the memory of the Holocaust and the fear and anxiety of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the creation of the State of Israel) in light of the military successes of the Nazis. Several other of his films deal with the on-going conflict.
In The Hannibal Directive Brunner gives voice to soldiers, the author of the ethical code of the army (a professor of philosophy) as well as other legal experts. Yehuda Shaul, from Breaking the Silence (a group that aims to inform the Israeli public about the human rights abuses committed by its army), informs the audience how he understood the Hannibal Directive: it is preferable to have a dead soldier rather than an abducted one. The image of a captured soldier in Israeli society is a negative one and even small school children are made to feel bad if their relatives allow themselves to be captured by the enemy. There are very difficult scenes in the film: the devastation inflicted on Gaza (and Lebanon), people looking for possessions in the rubble of their destroyed homes, parents crying over their dead children whilst one retired Israeli general states that the crying of an Israeli mother is more important than the tears of a thousand Palestinian mothers.
A difficult, but nevertheless important film to watch is also his State of Suspension. The heart-breaking scene is not only the house demolition but also the voice of a little child who asks his father in all innocence: “Dad, are they Jews?” on the occasion of watching Israeli soldiers invading the neighbourhood. Humiliating scenes of nearly naked Palestinian men are shown to the audience. Gideon Levy, the most outspoken journalist of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, talks about his experience in reporting from the Occupied Territories and explains his transformation from the “good boy from Tel Aviv” to a critical journalist who opened his eyes and his heart to the horrors of the occupation. For him the picture of a boy surrounded by tanks and soldiers (which he has in his Tel Aviv flat) says it all. He also talks about his parents, refugees from Czechoslovakia, who immigrated to Palestine and unlike many others Levy does not use the Holocaust as an excuse to inflict pain and suffering on others.
In The Great Book Robbery Brunner deals with an aspect of the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948) that is often forgotten: the looting of libraries of Palestinian intellectuals and educators such as Khalil al-Sakakini and many others. Ilan Pappe, the most outspoken of Israel’s historians, describes vividly how the looting occurred and how it was planned and did not just happen in the course of the war. The books are held in the National Library in Jerusalem and when a young Palestinian artist orders the books he calls it: liberating Palestine. But he can only order the books, read them and then has to return them.
In A Philosopher for All Seasons Brunner deals with the late professor Yeshahayu Leibowitz, the great intellectual and fierce critic of the occupation. Filmed partly after the death of his son, Leibowitz exposes the militarism, brutality and horrors of the occupation. Furthermore, he provides insights into his thinking, his philosophy and his life. Leibowitz was a true intellectual and a deeply orthodox Jew for whom religious knowledge and secular wisdom were not a contradiction. He is also the example that being a committed Zionist was then compatible with opposing the occupation, the militarism, chauvinism and religious fundamentalism. Anybody who is interested in understanding Israeli society and above all Jewish Eastern European society has to watch this film.
* Dr. Claudia Prestel is Associate Professor in Jewish and European History at the University of Leicester where she teaches courses in Jewish history as well as Israeli and Palestinian history. She previously taught at Monash University (Australia) and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.