(director/writer: Sigal Bujman; cinematographer: Marc Pingry; editors: Leah Trangen/Marc Pingry; Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Sigal Bujman/Friederike Nebel; Seventh Art Releasing/Marc Pingry production/JBS television; 2017-Germany, US, Australia, Israel, Poland, England and France-German, Hebrew, French & Polish with English subtitles)
“It took some three years to make this well-executed and uniquely personal investigative journalism film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Israeli filmmaker Sigal Bujman (“Papa Boss”) was born in a Kibbutz in Israel, but has been living in Seattle since 2002. Her probing moralistic Holocaust story is of a mysterious Polish Jew named Eddie Vitch (née Ignace Levkovitch). It took some three years to make this well-executed and uniquely personal investigative journalism film. The film came about when his relatives, Yaffa and Paul Maritz, wanted to know the whole story about Vitch and were living in Seattle near Bujman. They contacted Bujman to make the film that they would sponsor as executive producers.
At a young age, in the 1920s, Levkovitch left his small Polish town of Skierniewice and said farewell to his brother, three sisters and parents. He landed in Paris. In 1926 he married a Polish refuge living in Paris, but they divorced a year later with the wife retaining custody of their male child. In 1930 he went to NYC to work in a speakeasy owned by a Parisian friend, but after a police raid closed the joint he fled to Hollywood, where he adapted the name Eddie Vitch to get parts as an extra in films. Using his talents as an artist, Vitch created celebrity Hollywood caricatures by pen of the silver screen stars dining at the popular Brown Derby in L.A., a place that covered their walls with the celebrity caricatures and became famous for it (the restaurant closed in 1985).
In 1934 Levkovitch was deported to Paris for being an illegal immigrant (he overstayed his visa when entering the country on a French passport). His mime act became well-known in Paris and he went on tours around France with different troupes, until he settled in 1939 in Paris. There he earned a good living performing in cabarets as a mime using the stage name Eddie Vitch but signing his legal contracts under his given Jewish name of Levkovitch. He was encouraged to be a mime by his friend Charlie Chaplin.
During the Nazi occupation in 1940 he hid that he was Jewish by not registering as one (no Jews could work then, but he still oddly enough signed all his documents with his Jewish name). It’s possible that he could have been protected by the Nazi elites Goering and Goebbels, who caught his show at the Casino de Paris and found him funny. They probably knew he was a Jew but somehow still protected him, as he was hiding in plain sight. Their approval meant he could not only keep performing but could travel to Berlin and even performed at the height of the war in it’s most prestigious theater, La Scala, when ordered to by the Propaganda office. There are amazing film clips showing him performing on stage with beautiful German chorus girls and a packed-house of cheering German soldiers.
The charismatic Vitch became romantically involved with one of the German chorus girls who became pregnant. Because Germany was being bombed, she fled to Barcelona to give birth and raised her child there until moving to Australia. After the war when he visited, she refused to marry him.
The main question asked by the filmmaker is “How did this Jewish guy survive the horrors of WWII when living in occupied Paris and traveling to Germany during the war?” By following his trail as closely as the available information allows the filmmaker gets a rough idea of how he managed to accomplish such a risky undertaking. Bujman believes he must have had a protector in high places among the Nazis and they must have known he was Jewish even though his document trail shows a mix of nationalities and religions, from Lithuanian to Greek Orthodox.
Vitch gave one public interview in his life, in 1984, in Australia, when he was an old man. Though telling compelling stories about the war years, like the night he made Goering laugh at the club, only to later not see him laughing when he observed the war criminal from the peanut gallery of the Nuremberg trials. But Vitch never addresses if he had a protector. He tells only how he tried once to claim asylum in Sweden when the theater troupe was there on tour, but even after telling the Swedish authorities he was Jewish they rejected his claim and he was sent him back to Germany. Why the Nazis never did anything when seeing that alarming report is never explained by him.
During the latter part of the war Vitch was imprisoned by the Resistance as a possible collaborator. When free after the war he lands in Israel, marries a gentile in Australia and has with her three daughters Lisa, Shani and Regina. Lisa, the oldest, narrates the film. After he gives away one of the daughters at her wedding in 1986, the octogenarian dies soon afterward. The daughters contacted his daughter from his German wife and the ladies met for the first-time after their dad’s death, but Angelika never met her dad even though she searched for him for many years.
Levkovitch gets the ire of his surviving relatives from Poland who also landed in Israel after the war and tried tracking him down for years to no avail, and could not forgive him for not looking for them.
The director leaves us with the impression that he’s no hero and was a psychologically scarred figure, but can’t fault him for trying to survive in the way he thought best. Bujman points out he loved performing and making people laugh and was determined to survive the war by doing what he loved best. She mentions he did not escape unscathed, as he suffered from nightmares and bouts of depression for the rest of his life after the war. She thinks it’s best that he not be judged but rather he should be looked upon as another victim of the Holocaust, one with his own unique survival story.
REVIEWED ON 2/22/2020 GRADE: B+