Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Roberto Faenza
Screenplay: Roberto Faenza, Edith Bruck, Nelo Risi, Iole Masucci, Hugh Fleetwood, David Gleeson. Novel by Edith Bruck.
Runtime: 88 minutes.
Cast: Andrea Osvárt, Antonio Cupo, Eline Powell, Robert Sheehan.
Trailer: “One day I'll mount him and we'll ride off together.” (warning: Mr. Carell, care to respond?)
Plot: Wow, this is a terrible film. Anita B follows a Hungarian girl recently released from Auschwitz into the custody of her only living relative, her aunt Monica. Anita’s remaining family live in a small town outside Prague in communist Czechoslovakia, where Jews aren’t made terribly welcome. Anita initially resists then pursues a relationship with her cousin by law; spurning local Jew David, who decamps to Israel. So many more stupid, melodramatic events happen that I can’t fit them all in here.
Review: In short, Anita B is a hilariously terrible film – a strange twin to The Art Dealer in that it gets wrong everything that film gets right and vice-versa. Taken together, they are a great lesson for film students and enthusiasts alike of the spectrum of bad choices available to filmmakers. But please, unless you delight in the perverse thrill of the mind-bogglingly terrible, avoid these films at all costs. A proper review of Anita B does not follow. A full length mocking of its stupidity does.
So friends, if you’ve got some time to kill at a station or in a waiting room, let me tell you of the little nuggets Anita B delicately drops in the viewer’s lap like a diarrheic cat. Picture me sitting in the theatre, typing dialogue verbatim into my phone like a fury, because I had to get it word for word – no one would believe the hilariously misjudged lines these characters were spouting with the world’s stiffest actors. Stiffer and more artificial than the two dimensional trees in a high school play. The only natural is a toddler Anita looks after, who runs joyously wild and they barely manage to wrangle into shot. He was great. But let’s start with the setup.
We open on a generic field in the middle of nowhere; a military vehicle with the Red Cross insignia travels towards us. The titles read ‘May 1945. Immediately after the end of World War Two.’ OK, well technically just the end of conflict in Europe, not other theatres of war, but we’ll let that slide for now. The vehicle summarily disgorges our heroine – Anita B, the perkiest little chipmunk ever to survive a mass scale, industrialised death camp. She’s a bit downcast now, but she cheers up quick enough. She’s taken home by her aunt’s husband’s brother, Eli, who is as we will discover a giant fucking prick. Odd directorial choices so far? Well, Anita talks to herself in narration. No, not as a voiceover – literally, in the scene, as she looks out the window addressing ‘Mama’, leading characters to ask ‘what was that?’ and ‘are you alright?’ As the scars of Auschwitz go, I suppose delivering non-diegetic sound diegetically is a mild burden.
We arrive in a city colonised by Sudeten Germans, and re-gifted to the dispossessed; because as we know, two forced resettlements make a right. Eli is ever helpful in giving giant chunks of exposition off the cuff, remarking upon how they’re changing all the street signs and remarking ‘We’re wiping out the past!’ Good job Eli, that’s always worked out well. Blushing Anita inquires about the social side of the city, Eli’s romantic life, etc. etc. to which he replies ‘Men just want to pull their pants down, but women want love!’ He’s a circumcised Casanova, watch out ladies – or really, watch out Anita, because a blind vole could see where this is heading. I put exclamation marks after their dialogue because I swear to God, that’s how they delivered it. I think it was part of some Mikado-esque punishment to make all of these poor foreigners deliver their English lines in the approximation of an American accent. Who knows what their crime was; the result is curious at best.
Anita is turned into a first act Cinderella, and made to do all of the work around the house and care for the aforementioned toddler, her sister Monica’s son. They dangle the threat of being arrested without her papers over her head; remarking that they’ll be there soon, arranged by a family friend. Anita still has nightmares, and narrates to herself:
Mama, I dreamt that Hitler was alive and was on trial for killing six million Jews. But he pleaded not guilty and said that he only killed 599,000 so they let him free.
That the problems with those lines was not self evident to the scriptwriters (and tellingly, there were many of them) boggles my mind. I’ll just let that literary gem rest there for a while, as it is going to be a long time until we hear something that even comes close to the – what, wrongness? Awkwardness? Tackiness? – of that line in cinema again. We need to invent a new word just to describe how bad that piece of writing is.
But life is not all drudgery for Anita; they can still listen to the American Jazz on the radio, that is when the evil Russians aren’t trying to jam it with their boring committee speeches. It is at about this time that our jaundiced Don Juan, Eli, attempts to awkwardly seduce Anita during bedtime (their beds are wisely in the same lockable room, great planning there Monica) with the breathtaking line ‘most women fancy me when I’m naked, you know.’ I don’t know how she could possibly have known that Eli, you haven’t let her leave the house. Unless that was in the weekly bulletin you send out? I bet it’s called Eli’s Game or The 1940s Rules Revisited. When this doesn’t go well, Eli makes amends by sneaking Anita out of the house and showing her the beautiful horse he has been training. With Anita enraptured, he asks ‘At least he’s free. Do you think he’s happy?’ He looks like he's pretty much trapped in a hundred square metre paddock to me, so I’d say no Eli.
Sadly for Anita, the papers still have not arrived. But her ugly step-sister takes pity, and lets her accompany the family to a small Jewish gathering where they dance festively and she is swept off her heels by Eli, making a throwaway remark comparing it to her life in Hungary. But wait – some keen eared wallflowers, men in hats indoors for some reason, heard that and halt the festivities. What’s going on? They are secret State Policemen! Sent undercover to spy on small, random gatherings just like these. Masters of disguise, none of the family and their friends even noticed these stiff-looking strangers standing in the corner just waiting to overhear that a party attendee was a foreigner! Off to jail with Anita! Gruel and scrubbing and dungeons!
Oh, but then she’s immediately set free because the papers arrive a few days later, and no one asks any follow up questions. The point of that? I don’t know. Because you see, in this film the average length of a scene is about thirty seconds to a minute, and one drama will be introduced only to be resolved in the next scene or two. It is like the film knows it has the worst possible hash of a script imaginable, so it’s just trying to rocket through the plot points as quickly as possible and let the poor audience members be on their way. In my view, it’s a smart choice.
So Anita is out and free, and can now roam the streets of Somewhereville, where there are always extras loading old trunks into carts. She gets a job at a local sweat shop, run by a boss with the crippling disability of having to have every one of his lines redubbed. It was a little known plague in the 1940s. She meets naïve, less handsome David who immediately develops a crush on her, despite looking like Herr Lipp from The League of Gentlemen. He speaks of his passion for Israel, Judaism, and the Torah; chastising the Arabs, who will not let them return to the land God promised. Anita thinks there will be peace between these sons of Abraham, remarking ‘maybe it is just a dream, but I believe we should all follow our dreams.’ It’s like she’s been secretly reading Paulo Coelho's diary. ‘Aren’t we all brothers and sisters?’ Anita asks, and David sagely responds ‘Brothers and sisters can hate each other, especially if they live in the same place.’
Eli takes her to a film – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – and Anita panics. She thinks Hitler is back from the grave! (It doesn't seem she grasps the concept that film can record events from some time ago, I suppose.) Our latke Lothario graciously offers to leave, but Anita steels herself and says ‘no, I want to see’ as if it is a back-to-back showing of Shoah, Downfall 1945, and Weekend at Bernie’s II. Walking back from their enchanted evening, Anita asks Eli what happened to him? And he responds with the sad story of his fiancée being burnt alive by the Nazis. Moved beyond words, Anita promptly fucks him.
Well, it was more romantic than that. While he puts the moves on her, and she lets her pity be the judge, she asks ‘Do you love me? I need to know’ as he is inches away. Our pisher Prince Charming responds ‘of course, baby’ and it’s on like Donkey Kong, or whatever his barrel throwing 1940s equivalent would be.
So our poor Anita thinks she might be in love; asking a musician neighbour what love is. ‘It’s difficult to say,’ she responds ‘I suppose this is the best answer I can give’ and begins playing the piano. Real fucking helpful lady, use your words. Anita gives her a giant basket of food in return, because apparently the family have acquired enough Sudeten German property to start wearing furs and throwing away pies and chocolates in the middle of a tiny village, in those years of plenty known as 1945-46. Anita is in love, remarking ‘If you try to define it, it gets angry.’
She has her last conversation with bestie David, remarking ‘Don’t you ever wonder who we are?’ to which he responds ‘Here we are nothing. I want to be Jewish.’ Recounting how he survived the war, David remarks that his parents bought the protection of a Nazi friend, leaving him there, and then remarking in the cheeriest tone imaginable ‘And then they went home and shot themselves in the head.’ And like that he’s gone, disappearing to Jerusalem. Good work David, I’m sure you’ll be important later.
In the meantime, Anita ponders the strength of Eli’s love – asking him if he truly means it. He responds ‘Of course I mean it!’ He absolutely doesn’t. On returning to work and finding David gone, our heroine collapses and I tapped into my phone “she’s pregnant” not needing the confirmation to be provided scenes later. I was in for a surprise, as said confirmation arrives in the form of a naked bathing scene with the toddler, who suckles her breasts and calls her ‘mama,’ drawing forth some milk. That’s the 40s equivalent of a pregnancy test, I suppose. On informing our reliable Romeo, he remarks ‘Well it’s your fault if you are [pregnant]!’ with his accent fading periodically in and out (but so does everyone else’s). Witnessing Eli dancing with and kissing his brother’s wife, Anita begins to question the moral fibre of her mate. He suggests an abortion. ‘You said you loved me! And this is how you showed it, by killing our child!’ she responds. Then instead tries a little honey, placing his hand on her stomach and saying sweetly ‘Don’t you want to feel him kicking?’ That’s unlikely in the first trimester, Anita.
So we’re treated to a doctor Eli has somehow found, and a full gynaecological scene with a helpful nurse at the ready. Eli is suddenly flush with cash; paying for this, and taking Anita to a luxurious spa where he promptly locks her in her room. ‘I don’t blame you, it’s just the way you are’ Anita tosses off almost incidentally, indicating that the director doesn’t even know where the dramatic beats of his script are. Locked away like Rapunzel, Anita smartly throws a mattress out the window and jumps three stories onto it, landing like she just stepped off a bus. ‘Your husband will have to pay for that’ the proprietor wryly remarks. Not ‘why the fuck did you just throw a mattress out of the window? Are you mentally ill?’ Anita is on the run, escaping, although taking enough time to stop at a dress shop and buy up their entire stock of the Marlene Dietrich line. She’s adrift in Prague, stopping to ask every second local ‘You don’t happen to know where the Jewish refugee centre is, do you?’ Actually, they all know where it is pointing helpfully and remarking it is the second most popular tourist spot, behind the spot where Heydrich was shot with botox-laced bullets.
She meets friend Sarah, who was introduced earlier helping smuggle David to Jerusalem. ‘Hello! What are you doing in Prague?’ she remarks, nonplussed. She wants to flee to Jerusalem, but there is no room Sarah informs her – and anyway it isn’t up to her. So Anita wanders around in melancholy, exploring the Jewish refugee centre which has cute children’s paintings and 21st century stainless steel light switches. Why does she want to go to Israel? Sarah asks. Anita answers ‘I want to write novels, poetry, fairytales – invent a world that doesn’t exist!’ If only she’d written this script; it couldn’t have been any more artificial or fictionalised. She has visions of David and her dead mother in Jerusalem saying ‘I’m waiting for you! Come! Come!’ in the worst tourist ad campaign since that fake one for North Korea. But at the last minute, Sarah helps her out and lets her in! Turns out it was her decision! And also, luckily ‘someone’s dropped out.’ I mean sure, that someone could have been Solomon Mikhoels, popular actor-director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, trying to escape his inevitable assassination – but who cares, fuck that guy!
As the truck to Jerusalem trundles off into the sunset (yep, literally) Anita see a vision of her mother in the truck – meaning either she’s schizophrenic, or her mother was a Jedi. Either way, Anita reflects ‘I’m travelling light, toward the past, my only baggage the future.’ What the fuck that means, I have no idea. As soon as those credits rolled, I was out of there.
Rating: Half a shekel, in fairness to its twin The Art Dealer.