A Way of Untying the Knot

Paulus Hochgatterer, 2005

There she stands, the gorgeous 12-year-old Sophie trying on her white dress, nervously fussing with the dress and with herself, making faces, thinking she’s too fat, especially around her budding breasts, and it becomes clear in only one take that this peculiar process of adolescence, which we have all gone through and have so willingly forgotten, is something tied to our bodies. We look at the other three main characters in Ruth Beckermann’s most recent documentary ZORRO’S BAR MIZVA and remember more precisely, what these bodily changes are like. Although they are all about the same age, they look quite different. Tom and Moishy, boyish, beardless and a bit stiff, and Sharon, who chose ‘Zorro’ as the motto for his festival, already like a real man.

Watching Sophie in front of the mirror, it begins to dawn on us that this physicality has something to do with sexual matters. This is brought to the point when, during the shooting of his Zorro-clip, as soon as Sharon suddenly enters a state of crisis and exclaims that all the galloping and sabre fencing are simply too tedious and in reality he is only interested in the sequence, where he, as a black avenger, finally gets to hold and kiss his (sparingly dressed) beloved. All the physical and sexual irritations are best solved when someone makes it clear, that you are wonderful and attractive, even more so with a beard or breasts than without, and by having people around who give you a stable sense of identity even in the state of worst confusion. Parents normally accomplish that, even in times of exponentially accelerating change. This is easier for parents, who themselves have a reasonably stable identity. That is what Ruth Beckermann’s film is about, among other things.

Besides that, the film also tells about rites of passage, about how helpful these highly formalised ceremonies are in phases of crisis, how they promote social anchoring, and how they reduce the fear of the new by always coming too early: The juveniles are declared adults even though it is obvious that they are not really there yet. That way they are given some wiggle-room, ‘as if’-zones, safe passages, where they can linger for a while. Moishy’s father demonstrates this best, when he talks about giving back the sins to his thirteen year-old son, which he had carried for him over the years. At this moment the man betrays a mischievous joy, at the same time knowing that the boy, with all his sins, will remain a burden for quite some time. Finally, and above all, ZORRO’S BAR MIZVA is a film about Viennese Jews in their entire ethnic and religious diversity. Tom is the son of an Israeli mother and an Austrian, not Jewish father; Moishy is from a strictly orthodox family; Sharon has Georgian parents with Sephardic roots; And Sophie’s family is thoroughly assimilated. Accordingly, the religious ceremonies and family celebrations turn out to be quite different. Altogether a very colourful story develops, filled with humour and intimacy.

Her main concern is to show the interior spaces pertaining to the families and the city, Ruth Beckermann says, therefore she visited the kitchens and living rooms in their homes as well as their synagogues. Maybe she would have liked to do a crazy Viennese-Jewish documentary soap. – But it’s far from being a soap. The filmmaker’s approach to her protagonists is – despite the closeness she establishes – much too discreet and careful. Her images rather open up slices of emotional space within the adolescents and their families. The bewilderment that wells up when the boy is unrolling the Torah scroll, at the very moment, reveals how the religious tradition, in which they stand, becomes available to them immediately and literally, possibly like it never has before. We feel the apprehensiveness that catches hold of the parents, even though they know that they are not really losing their children quite yet. Finally, Beckermann also shows the charming mixture of scepticism and ironic indulgence, with which the Jewish women handle being excluded from certain parts of the ritual.

Ruth Beckermann avoids the risk of being educational or voyeuristic with a simple narrative trick. She introduces André Wanne to the story, who specializes in making feature-film-like Bar-Mizva-clips. It is clear from the start, that he, as a teller of fairy tales, is entitled to do anything: lay it on thick, fib, be pushy, and gloss over without restraint. By doing a little of all that while making it transparent at the same time, the trick becomes effective: Ruth Beckermann’s material, which shows things from a greater distance, intertwines with Wanne’s footages, producing a cinematic texture of persuasive facility.

Close to the end, when the Viennese Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg grabs the microphone, starts to swing, and belts out a Jewish medley, we sense, once again, where the matter of growing up had begun: in the body. Aside from that, we think about the next family celebration and ask ourselves: How can we hire this man?

Translated from German by Monika Nowotny