Directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann, Amir Mann. Narrated by Martin Landau. (2002, NR, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 30, 2003
Shanghai Ghetto is one of those feature documentaries that’s intrinsically interesting because of its subject matter but is nevertheless marred by the technical limitations of its talking-head narrative technique. Far too many films for theatrical release fall into this category, and they contribute to the overall bad rap that documentaries face in the marketplace. Yet, for a critic to dismiss a modestly made documentary that nevertheless supplies information or new documentation about the subject of its study often seems tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And since Shanghai Ghetto is a documentary about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who escaped to Shanghai, China, for the duration of the war, no one here wants to turn away any more babies or their bathwater. There are millions of stories that stem from the Holocaust years, yet every time you think there can’t be too many new twists on the basic story or themes a new one emerges. The story of these Eastern European refugees in China is one that’s not commonly known by the public. But it makes sense. By the late 1930s, most countries were shutting their borders to Jewish immigrants who had started teeming in during the middle of the decade. One destination that wasn’t the least bit picky about papers or passports at the end of the decade was the port of Shanghai, which was under Japanese rule at the time. Thus, a substantial colony of German and Russian Jews arose in Shanghai, at first mingling among the poor Chinese residents in the impoverished quarter of the city and later moving to a separate ghetto area by order of the Japanese. It’s inherently fascinating stuff – the blending of two dissimilar cultures, the rise of a unique yet basically temporary Jewish community. The children of these immigrants, now dispersed around the world, talk to the Shanghai Ghetto filmmakers one-on-one. One of the witnesses is also the father of one of the filmmakers. What’s recalled are often childhood memories of what it was like to play with the Chinese children (easy and enjoyable), but often lacking is an adult point of view of the struggle and pain. China’s particular history during this time as a land occupied by fierce Japanese conquerors may be hazy or unknown to current viewers, and the film does little to explicate China’s state of affairs. A voice-over narration by Martin Landau smoothes over any gaps in the narrative, but his paternalistic tone does little to enhance the experience of the movie. Shanghai Ghetto should be applauded for finding a new angle on a tireless story, but you might want to think twice before booking passage.