This feature-film by Werner Herzog presents an interesting view of the time period concerning the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and their effects on Jews in Germany and Poland: 1932 & 1933. What stands out the most to me is how obvious it is to viewers today (it’s amazing to think it was over 70 years ago!) that the incomprehsible “racial” divide between Germans and Jews was in its budding stages.
Herzog presents a picture very near the white-black segregation of the 1950s in America with scenes of Nazis insulting Jews and Jews just sitting there and taking it, not realizing the extent of their future misery. And by the end of the film, when Zishe returns home to Poland and tries to rally his fellow Polish Jews, he is unsuccessful at convincing them that the German Nazis are a potential problem. Standing there at the town’s water pump, Zishe’s attempt to introduce his community to what we now know was Hitler’s “Big Lie”–the unimaginable truth of the catastrophic threat against Jews. But Zishe was just as unsuccessful at convincing them before it had even begun, as the rest of the world stood unconvinced of the extent of the atrocity by the time the war had ended–no one could believe the extent to which the Nazis would go to cleanse their race and culture of what they deemed impurities. Even today it is hard to fathom.
There is a scene in the theatre of the Occult where Zishe (the enormous Polish Jew) throws off his Aryan-Nordic-Roman garb, states his real name and creed, and declares himself the new Jewish Samson. The segregated crowd (Nazis on the left side of the aisle and Jews on the right side of the aisle) erupt in their various blasphemes and praises, respectively. It is a powerful moment; one precipitated by Zishe’s little brother’s earlier comment about how he was surprised how much he had changed. But while Zishe had temporarily donned a false identity, he found himself in the process.
Sadly, in finding himself, he also loses himself. But therein lies the beauty of the story. When the idea of “Samson” was brought up in the film for the first time (as Zishe walks through the countryside and a girl who calls herself “Delilah” comes up), I wondered what would be Zishe’s proverbial Samson “hair.”
Well, at the end of the film, it turns out to be something very simple and unexpected. And that makes it all-the-more gut-wrenching. A small cut on such an enormous and “pure” figure brought about his downfall. The saddest part of the whole film was that Zishe’s suffering represents the large gash that would later mar the Jews. But it turns out he was posthumously praised as a hero of the Jews, so we must take some consolation from that.
A beautiful movie. And sad. Some tender moments of human purity. Zishe was kind, loving, innocent, hard-working, faithful, caring, and misunderstood. One normal, everyday man can’t possibly have deterred another man’s atrocities before they had even happened. But after-the-fact, as Herzog has shown us, we can relish in the thought that Zishe tried. Sweet Zishe.