Wednesday, January 18, 2012

NYJFF ’12: Lea and Darija

Lea Deutsch’s very name is a cruel historical irony. She was also known as the “Croatian Shirley Temple.” It could have been a hard title to live down later in her life, but Deutsch never had the chance. Branko Ivanda dramatizes the story of the ill-fated Jewish superstar and her German friendly rival in Lea and Darija (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Deutsch ruled benignly over the Children’s Realm, her father’s youth theater ensemble. A huge star in Zagreb, Pathé even filmed her for their Parisian newsreels. The only performer who could keep up with her was Darija Gasteiger, a young German expat with a ferocious stage mom. Despite the friction between their mothers, the girls become fast friends. Together, they triumph on stage as Hansel and Gretel. Shortly thereafter, Croatia follows the lead of its German ally, enacting a series of anti-Jewish laws. At this point, the Deutschs’ fortunes suffer a dramatic reversal, while Gasteiger’s star continues to rise.

Although Croatia did not exactly cover herself with glory during WWII, it seems like everyone in Zagreb wanted to save young Deutsch. Yet, for reasons the film cannot explain due to gaps in the historical record, every effort failed. At one point, a rendezvous was arranged with the partisans to take Deutsch and her mother to relative safety, but their contact never showed. They also had a slightly creepy but potentially life-saving marriage proposal from a young fascist soldier acting as their protector, which they do not outright reject, but for unknown reasons, it never comes to fruition. One thing is known for certain: Deutsch would perish in the bloody madness unleashed by the National Socialists.

L&D has far more singing and dancing than the typical Holocaust drama. As Deutsch and Gasteiger respectively, Klara Naka and Tamy Zajec are dynamic and polished performers. They also look awfully young, which is grimly historically accurate. Given the circumstances, Naka logically has the meatier role, painfully watching her sheltered world implode. She is certainly engaging, coming across a bit immature in a believably human way. Zajec in contrast, largely just dances, but she does it quite well. Yet, it is Sebastian Cavazza who really gives the film its soul as Deutsch’s reserved but deeply humane father, Stjepan.

As a conscious strategy on Ivanda’s part, L&D never shows the actual horrors of the camps. Instead, he uses symbolic interlude represent Deutsch’s final moments. It might be expressive, but it has the effect of whitewashing the reality of what happened. To be fair though, the film is never ambivalent or in any way problematic in the way it depicts the anti-Semitism of the NDH puppet regime.

L&D is not the exactly most absorbing Holocaust drama ever, but it is perfectly respectable, well produced and intentioned period production. It also offers a relatively rare (for American audiences) examination of the wartime experience of a minor ally of the Axis Powers. Indeed, the “Ž” worn by Jewish Croatians rather the notorious star is somewhat jarring, but no less ominous. A fascinating and tragic story, L&D is a solid selection for this year’s NYJFF. It screens this Sunday (1/22) and Monday (1/23) at the Walter Reade Theater.