By Cameron McAllister
The 17th annual Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (AJFF) kicked off with a bang on Tuesday, January 24, 2017. While the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre has been the opening night venue for the last several years, this year’s gala and film presentation brought forth a mixture of AJFF tradition and new elements.
To be quite honest, I wouldn’t miss the AJFF opening night gala for anything in the world. In fact, I need to make sure that the births of any future children do not coincide with this event. The walls of the Energy Centre’s grand ballroom were lined with 18 vendors, including some of Atlanta’s top restaurants—Davio’s, Atlas, Ecco, Southern Art and Bourbon Bar—as well as several global offerings. The lead chef from Tel-Aviv restaurant Ouzeria and her team were present all the way from Israel for the second year in a row, and let me tell you—they make the best food I’ve ever eaten.
Sorry, I have to stop myself from gushing when it comes to good food, especially Israeli food.
Tasty treats aside, the AJFF gala is easily one of the most glamorous and highly anticipated film events in the state each year. This year, the decor and tone marked a notable maturity that comes from a 17-year-old festival making all the right moves.
Once festivities moved into the massive auditorium, a crowd numbering somewhere between two and three thousand had the pleasure of hearing from a number of AJFF board and sponsor speakers, but more notably, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made a surprise appearance to address the crowd of Atlanta’s most highly-attended film festival. Needless to say, there was plenty of Falcons love from Mayor Reed and AJFF Executive Director Kenny Blank (son of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank).
In addition to a festival preview, highlighting several films of note that can be viewed across the 23-day duration of the fest, the audience was treated to performances from The Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra and a troupe of young vocalists from the ArtsBridge Foundation—who sang a selection from Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway hit “Merrily We Roll Along,” which is the subject of AJFF ‘17 official selection “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”
“The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival has always prided itself on being more than just a night at the movies, and Opening Night is the biggest audience experience of the festival,” said Kenny Blank. “From the glitzy gala with celebrity chefs, to the generous remarks from Mayor Kasim Reed, to the musical performance by the students of ArtsBridge, to the compelling post-film Q&A with director Vincent Pérez, the 2017 AJFF has kicked with tremendous energy and impact. That’s to say nothing of the powerful movie, ‘Alone in Berlin,’ just the first of 200+ screenings to come.”
Swiss actor-turned-director Vincent Pérez directed “Alone in Berlin,” which stars Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson and Daniel Brühl. Based on the 1947 novel of the same name, Gleeson and Thompson play Otto and Anna Quangel—characters inspired by real life figures Otto and Elise Hampel, a Berlin couple who wrote and distributed anti-Nazi postcards following the combat death of their son.
While the starpower and subject matter make the film a near perfect fit for AJFF’s opening night, “Alone in Berlin” fails to utilize its rich resources to the fullest extent. There exist several moments in the film where the viewer is completely swept up in intense suspense. Unfortunately, those moments feel like islands separated by deep, but tepid waters. Pérez—who also co-wrote the screenplay—shows skill in how the film builds some steam. The overall plotting is excellent, but the pacing for each scene varies far too wildly to keep the audience completely engaged.
It seems that Gleeson, Thompson and Brühl get only one scene each to showcase their chops. Not as though we needed any of them to prove themselves, but all three are far more capable of much heavier lifting than what is asked of them. Thompson, in particular, suffers from having the least to do. For the first several scenes, it seems that we only see her clutch at her heart and run out of the room quietly weeping.
“Alone in Berlin” shows much dedication to recreating what Berlin must have felt like in the early 1940s—a setting that we don’t usually see from a strictly non-Jewish or non-Nazi perspective. The sets are well dressed, the photography is handsomely framed and the editing is clean. However, the film’s tone is simply too vanilla to make up for the scene-to-scene pacing problems and underdeveloped characters.
Vincent Pérez was in attendance for a Q&A following the film’s screening, although most of the conversation steered towards the film’s subjects and their historical counterparts. Many better films have served as AJFF Opening Night presentations in the past, but “Alone in Berlin” was still well-received by the crowd and served as an appropriate kick-off for the mammoth festival.