Yom HaShoah, which falls this year on Tuesday, April 25, calls on us to remember the Holocaust. One of the easiest ways to do this is through film.
And while there are myriad Holocaust documentaries, each with an extraordinary story to tell, every new one in effect raises the question, “What makes this different from all other Holocaust films?”
“Rene and I” focuses on fraternal twins who were 6-year-old subjects in Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical experiments in Auschwitz. If that’s not enough to pique a viewer’s interest, there’s also one of those incredible reunification tales of folks separated after the war.
Add to the mix a dollop of President Truman, a pinch of Al Capone’s Jewish henchman and for good measure, Life magazine. Now that’s a movie!
“Rene and I, ” which will be co-presented by the Holocaust Center of Northern California and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, plays 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 26 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Filmmaker Gina Angelone will be present for a Q&A afterwards.
As an adult, Rene is a healthy, robust man and not especially interested in revisiting his painful past. The real center of this film, the “I” of the title, is Irene Slotkin, née Renata Guttman, who, by her own admission, as a child “tried to be good, tried to be invisible.” She is portrayed in semi-heroic light: For example, she continues to visit the sick, despite her own infirmities.
Irene is frail and shy in some ways, and her humor only partially seems to cover a slight bitterness about being continually torn from those she loved.
She is a Job-like figure who is confined to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis — after having once been a marathon runner. The movie vaguely implies a tie between her current physical condition and the damage to her immune system from stress and injections of foreign matter in Auschwitz, but doesn’t dwell on this so much as simply raising it as a possibility.
“Rene and I” is “the un-Holocaust Holocaust film,” in the words of Angelone. What she apparently means by that is that through all the twists and turns the film takes, although you never lose sight of the Holocaust, ultimately it is more about the human spirit.
Angelone herself is the mother of twins (as are her two partners in her production company, appropriately named “Twin Pix”).
Though not Jewish, the filmmaker recollects that she “went to at least 80 bar/bat mitzvahs” during her childhood. She grew up outside Baltimore, the daughter of a Roman Catholic man who fought in World War II and was part of the liberation in Sicily.
She wanted to tell an unusual story about two children who were not hidden and, against all odds, not only survived but went on to have 10 grandchildren between them.
The story of the two protagonists, who speak every day and remain very close, is edited in a clever way — literally overlapping in parts to imply a shared mind. In reality, the interviews were conducted 10 months apart. While the film is well made, the archival footage of Kristallnacht, Hitler’s march, and other WWII stock images feels a bit obligatory and feels clichéd, unless you are seeing them for the first time.
But as Angelone points out, this film is meant to be a memoir, not historical fact. Remembering the Holocaust is the “point of departure” for the film, but the bottom line is that the director felt Rene and Irene are “great people to spend and hour and a half with.”
“Rene and I” plays 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 26 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room, 701 Mission Street, S.F. Tickets: $7 general, $6 for students, seniors, and YBCA members. Information: (415) 978-2787 or www.ybca.org.