‘Jewish film’ is a concept present in film culture, which was initially popularized through Jewish film days and film festivals, and was later expanded by a historical perspective through exhibitions from the 2000s onwards. However, systematic scholarly analysis of the subject matter has yet to be conducted — in film and media studies as well as in Jewish studies. The Junior Research Group addresses the controversial question “Jewish Film — What is it?” focusing on practical film work, film culture and reception. Through four individual projects, the Junior Research Group aims to give contours to the subject and to show what is understood and perceived as ‘Jewish film’ in specific historical and social contexts.
Funding Institution: Postdoc Network Brandenburg
Since the end of the 1970s, at the latest, there has been research situated at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Film Studies that takes cinematic engagements with Jewish history and Jewish experience into account. As many of them are individual studies in different disciplines, they did not form a coherent field of research for a long time, although corresponding topics were able to establish themselves not only in research, but also in teaching (even if they are still rather marginal topics in German-speaking countries). At the same time, a development is perceptible also in film culture — initially in North America — that points to a growing interest in Jewish themes in film: Film festivals and film days, seminars and retrospectives, as well as initial collection projects deal with the thematic interrelationship coined as Jewish film’, thus introducing and disseminating the term. At the same time, the vagueness of the term is quite evident, even in the context of film culture. It is repeatedly addressed, playfully or seriously, through the question “What is ‘Jewish film’?” The different and sometimes contradictory answers, however, can exist in parallel in the realm of culture. For example, the creator of the Israeli series Shtisel, Yehonatan Indursky, has a simple answer to the question of Jewish Film which he gave during a panel event at the Jewish Film Festival Berlin Brandenburg: there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish film’. This open approach of simultaneously working with a term and questioning or rejecting it is hardly suitable for scholarly debates. For this reason, the transfer to a scholarly discourse raises numerous questions (and also reservations): Especially from the film and media studies perspective, the concept of ‘Jewish film’ is problematic, mostly when films are described not only on the basis of their subjects, but also of the filmmakers. This position becomes clear in the definition proposed by Gertrud Koch for Jewish Studies, that films become interesting for the discipline “when they bring aspects of Jewish life, of historical constellations that were determinant for the lives of Jewish collectives and individuals, to the center or to the fore in a significant way.” Jewish filmmakers, on the other hand, are explicitly not relevant.
In fact, the connection ‘Judaism and film’, apart from its socio-political significance, is not only relevant for Jewish studies: For German film history, it can be stated that Jewishness is inseparable from it, both on the level of the filmmakers and on that of the film subjects — be it in the commemorative culture or in negotiations of German self-images in relation to ‘the Other’. Thus, the examination of ‘German-Jewish film history’ can be understood first as a contribution to a critical history of German film as well as a concretization of the problematic concept of ‘Jewish film’, whereby ambiguities and tensions become visible in both directions. Film is where conflicting public and self-images of Jewishness in differently constituted majority societies (e.g. France, Germany, Israel, USA) meet and it also is a seismograph of changing Jewish environments in the Jewish diaspora as well as in Israel. ‘Jewish film’ offers extensive material for research on media representation as well as visual participation of minority groups. Even though it represents a particular case, ‘Jewish film’ can nevertheless generate new findings also for the representation of other social minorities.
We use the term ‘Jewish film’ to bundle research approaches and perspectives on a research field that, at least in the German-speaking academia, has not yet been formed as such, which is why many works exist in juxtaposition without referring to each other. Accordingly, the description, investigation, and discussion of its potentials, limits, and internal differentiations for both film studies and Jewish studies are still a desideratum.
The Junior Research Group “Jewish Film — What is it?” provides a methodological answer to the conceptual difficulties outlined above. The research projects follow Moshe Zimerman’s pragmatic proposal to understand as ‘Jewish Film’ that which has been negotiated as such. The individual projects thus do not approach the subject primarily through the filmic texts and their analysis, in order to attempt a definition based on them, but rather take a look at distribution, reception, and practical film work in film programs. Hence Jewish film festivals, the reception of films as Jewish, and their audiences in specific historical situations of reception are examined. In this perspective, the definitions of practical film work/film culture and reception serve as starting point from which the contours of the term ‘Jewish film’ can be sharpened. The individual projects of the research group attempt to answer the question ‘What is Jewish Film?’ on the basis of different subject-matters emerging from the field and to show what is understood and received as ‘Jewish Film’ in specific historical and social contexts.
Project Management: Dr. Lea Wohl von Haselberg
The research group is funded by the PostDocNetwork Brandenburg