She was raised in the Orthodox tradition, but was ordained as Berlin’s first female rabbi, recognizing no inherent contradiction between the two. Her historic career, tragically cut short by the National Socialists, is profiled in Diana Groó’s Regina, which screens this week during the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival.
Regina Jonas grew up in turn-of-the-century Berlin’s desperately poor Eastern European immigrant neighborhood—the ghetto before the ghetto, so it is not hard to surmise her ultimate fate. However, Jonas’s formative years were rather extraordinary, because her Orthodox father insisted she receive an education, alongside her brother. At an early age, Jonas showed an aptitude for religious instruction, which she would pursue for the rest of her life.
After years of study and struggle, Jonas was finally ordained, with the support of both reformists and select Orthodox mentors. Nonetheless, her accomplishment proved quite controversial, nearly splitting Berlin’s Jewish community. Ironically, the National Socialists inadvertently hastened her acceptance, by making rabbis so ominously scarce in the city. During grim times, Jonas’s sermons were a source of strength and consolation to many, but she would soon share the fate of so many of her fellow Jewish Berliners.
At just over an hour, Regina is a relatively short film, but regrettably, Jonas lived a relatively short life. Since there is only one surviving photo of her, Groó mostly relies on archival footage of the period that conveys a strong sense of time and place. While necessarily limiting, she often gives the visuals a stylistic tweak, zooming in, slowing down, and hazing over images for an effect not unlike Guy Maddin’s films. In truth, it mostly works quite well. Yet, it is the powerful minimalist guitar score composed and performed by Dániel Kardos (somewhat reminiscent of Gary Lucas’s original silent film projects) that makes the film so distinctive.