Dir. Jeff Kanew. Germany-Belarus, 2003. 108mins.
Babij Jar is the kind of entry that festivals will find hard to reject, but once accepted, will tear their hair out trying to find a slot for. Devoting a fictional film to one of the most barbarous massacres of WW2 is a praiseworthy initiative but doing it this way is, to say the least, awkward. Despite the film-makers' commendable intentions, they do not a film make: and the best that Babij Jar can look forward to is exposure in film events dedicated to the Holocaust. It received a special screening at the Berlin film festival in February.
Babij Jar, a ravine in Ukraine where the Germans, supported by locals, slaughtered 33,000 Jews during 48 hours in 1941, has been covered before, most famously by Yevgeny Yevtushenko's celebrated poem and the 1990 film Women's Tailor by Leonid Gorovetz. Sadly, nothing in Stephen Glantz script justifies this new attempt. Telling the story through two fictional neighbouring families (the Jewish Lerners and the Ukranian Oufrienkos) fails to add another dimension to a horrific event and instead plunges the film into a maudlin melodrama.
The characters trumpet their intentions, declaim their beliefs and forego any attempt at subtlety or intelligence. Everyone is a stereotype, from decadent, cold-blooded Germans to raving, anti-Semitic Ukrainians and terrorised Jews, with every piece of information spelled out in detail. The horrific events are intercut with documentary footage, some of it familiar, discrediting the fictional images even more.
The decision to shoot in black and white is correct for this type of picture, but the banality of the images, the uninspired direction and the self-conscious, strained and stilted quality acting - by a cast of proven actors who will prefer to forget this experience - also contribute to the film's failure. Stretching credibility, finally, is the fact that Germans, Ukrainians and Jews understand each other as they are all dubbed into one language, German.
Prod co/int'l sales: CCC Filmkunst
Prod: Artur Brauner
Scr: Stephen Glantz, based on a story by Art Bernd
Cinematography: Sergei Bondarev, Alexander Rud, Tatiana Logonova
Ed: Jeff Kanew, Art Bernd
Prod des: Igor Tepelin, Oleg Sedlovsky
Music: Walter Werzowa
Cast: Michael Degen, Barbara de Rossi, Katrin Sass, Axel Milberg, Evkledis Koirtzidis Kyriakos, Gleb Proschnew, Anatoly Guriev