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Shanghai Ghetto (NR)
Menemsha Entertainment
Official Site
Directors: Dana Janklowicz-Mann & Amir Mann
Producers: Dana Janklowicz-Mann & Amir Mann
Featuring: Alfred Kohn, Harold Janklowicz, I. Betty Grebenschikoff, Sigmund Tobias, Evelyn Pike Rubin, Prof. David Kranzler, Prof. Irene Eber, Prof. Xu Buxeng; narration by Martin Landau

Rating: out of 5

Shanghai Ghetto is rather poor cinema, but one hell of a tale. The Manns, who may be the original gang who couldn’t shoot straight, have made a good movie in spite of themselves. Fortunately for viewers, every cheesy bit of melodrama, every instance of inept filmmaking the directors injected is countered by the incredible story of Jews who fled Nazi Germany and sought sanctuary in the unlikeliest of places, Shanghai.

Old ones are dying off and the rush is on to tell their stories, in narrative or documentary. Look how many Jewish experience movies have come out in the past five years and you’ll see what I mean. And frankly, there can’t be too many movies about the Holocaust and Holocaust-related topics. Something that is the shame of the world not only shouldn’t be forgotten, it should be studied by all and sundry. Shanghai Ghetto is perfect for that. The movie is such a flood of information that, instead of taking film notes, I found myself frantically scribbling notes like I was sitting in history class.

The first segment of Shanghai Ghetto deals with the difficult matter of getting out of Germany. Jews’ bank accounts had been frozen by the Nazis, so travel money was hard to come by. Even if the money wasn’t a problem though, destinations were hard to come by. Major nations may have deplored German treatment of Jews, but the Evian Conference—at which major nations declined to accept the large numbers of Jewish refugees seeking a way out of Europe—showed that the world didn’t much want the Jews either. The one promising destination for escaping Jews was Shanghai, a place where papers were not required of immigrants. Hundreds of German Jews descended upon Hongkew, the Japanese section of the International Settlement.

Life in Hongkew was difficult. The climate and the poverty of the Chinese were brutal shocks to the Europeans, who found jobs scarce and the housing primitive. Baghdadi Jews, in Shanghai as British subjects, had been allowed to keep their money. The Baghdadis provided social supports like food and dormitories for the new immigrants. Shanghai Ghetto presents interviews with five Shanghailanders, the name given to the Jews of Shanghai, as well as with two academics whose specialty area is the Jewish WWII experience, and a Chinese academic who discusses this period in Shanghai’s history. The Shanghailanders have tough, tear-jerking stories to tell, both of their personal experiences and of life in Shanghai in general. One man recounts the devastating cold of winter, and tells of Chinese families so poor that “They had no heat… Children would freeze to death and you’d see them in the street. They’d be picked up with the trash.”

Life in Hongkew was also difficult because many of the Jews couldn’t get their minds around what had happened to them. Many were like the wife in Nowhere In Africa, who can’t believe that the land of Goethe and Schiller would become so barbaric toward some of its own. Professor Kranzler particularly talks of how German the Jews felt, how proud they were of their contributions to their country’s arts and sciences, and how unaware they were that these contributions were resented by the Germans who saw them as taking over German culture. But the Jews managed to make lives for themselves in their temporary homes. Jewish papers, cafehouses, etc., German and Yiddish theaters, and sports clubs sprang up in Hongkew.

Today the Shanghailanders have periodic reunions. The filmmakers attended the last one, in 1999, and recruited subjects for their film. Several of the Shanghailanders visited Hongkew with the filmmakers, returning to the neighborhoods and in some cases, the very apartments, of their childhood. The Manns had no official permission to film, so this part of the movie has that guerrilla documentary feel, with poor visuals but surprisingly decent sound.

Now about those flaws. The near complete absence of Chinese perspective on the Jewish immigration is a major defect. Betty, one of the Shanghailanders, comments regarding the Chinese: “Twenty thousand of us pushing twenty thousand of them out… they were there first…” I must presume that the commando nature of the filming prevented the Manns from getting any interviews whatsoever with any surviving Chinese residents of Hongkew. Shanghai Ghetto uses the same footage and the same stills over and over and over again. Martin Landau’s smooth, serious baritone is a bit much, and his narration does nothing to compensate for dreadful lines like “It looked like Hitler was unstoppable.” Then, to cap off their missteps, the Manns made what must be one of the cardinal sins of documentaries—the zoom-in on a crying interviewee. The story is affecting enough without being tricked out. Trust us to know how to feel about what we’re hearing and seeing. A sad story that brings its teller to the point of tears. We don’t need an extreme close-up of the teardrops. If anything, distance and respect are indicated at such times.

Shanghai Ghetto may be the worst documentary movie I ever watch and rewatch. Its clumsy filmmaking provokes occasional eye-rolls and head-shakes, but its stories are so compelling and so necessary to be told.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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