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From the contemporary Polish Diaspora, we return to Scandinavia, this time to Denmark of the 1890s. A Fortunate Man, a 2018 film now streaming on Netflix, was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Bille August, best known for Pelle the Conqueror.
The film gives us a look into the assimilated world of the fin de siècle Copenhagen Jewish community. At the center of the narrative is yet another star-crossed, interfaith romance, this one between Peter, a brilliant but bitter son of a rigid country preacher, and Jakobe, the educated daughter of a haute bourgeois Jewish family.
Our first indication of the film’s Jewish element is a cantor’s chanting of the Yigdal at a Shabbat morning service at the famed Great Synagogue of Copenhagen, with its high dome and Egyptian columns. Here, courtship is manifest in discreet glances exchanged between men seated on the floor of the sanctuary and women in the balcony. Later, there is a wedding reception where the newlyweds are hoisted on chairs by friends and relatives, accompanied by a small band, singing “Siman tov u’Mazal tov.”
In the early days of October 1943, heroic members of the Danish Resistance and others warned their Jewish friends and neighbors that the Gestapo roundup and transportation were imminent. The Danes took to their fishing and pleasure boats and ferries and spirited their country’s Jews, along with some Eastern European refugees, to safety in nearby neutral Sweden.
It was “a living wall raised by the Danish people in the course of one night,” wrote the historian Leni Yahil, “saving their humanity as well as the Jews.” Of the country’s 7,700 Jews and refugees, 90 percent survived the war. Fifty-one did not escape and died at the Theresienstadt ghetto.
This luminous record notwithstanding, A Fortunate Man, set half a century earlier, portrays the kind of peasant and middle-class anti-Semitism then deeply rooted in Denmark’s fundamentalist Lutheran Christianity. It also reminds us that, no matter how tolerant a society, no matter how assimilated a Jewish community, residual anti-Semitism remains.
The film’s portrait of the Jewish community is a mix of insight and stereotype. The men, successful entrepreneurs, are high-minded and not avaricious, but many are also mostly beefy, almost bursting out of their suits. The wives, sisters and daughters are slender, educated, well-traveled and socially engaged.
Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), the central family’s elder daughter, has two university degrees and is fluent in six languages. And, observing her country’s yawning gap between prosperity and poverty, is developing a strong social conscience.
Invited to a family dinner, Peter (Esben Smed), the visionary but arrogant young engineer, is exposed to the cosmopolitan conversation around the table. Jakobe attracts his attention when she says, “It’s deplorable to see the ravages of poverty on a man.”
Jakobe’s fiancé is an older, successful businessman, “of good Jewish stock,” as one character observes. However, he is also something of a snob, wondering aloud how the son of a country preacher—presumably faith-affirming and science averse—should choose to become an engineer.
Demonstrating her intellect and social conscience, Jakobe comes to Peter’s defense, insisting that there is no contrast between faith and science. “How are these things contradictory?” she asks, listing the benefits that engineering has afforded humanity. Inventions like railroads and the telegraph have brought families closer. Such technological breakthroughs, she continues, “could eliminate the differences between people, and…that could be the decisive step toward a world of wisdom and hope, the brotherly love we have vaunted in our faith…I am convinced that people can shrink prejudice through freedom of movement. We can aspire to a society where all individuals can live together in harmony, as free as we are independent.”
Later, Peter, who believes himself to be “God’s own genius,” tells Jakobe how impressed he was to hear her speak with such “wisdom and passion,” to the point where he felt inadequate in her family’s company. “I have never experienced an open-minded and freethinking family like yours,” he says. “The way you’re aware of world events, and you feel accountable too…To me, it was nothing like I’d ever been around.”
Because she is both principled and a romantic, Jakobe breaks the engagement with her Jewish fiancee. Her father declines to force his daughter to go through with the arranged marriage, explaining, “in the end, Jakobe will determine her own future.”
Jakobe’s mother observes that Peter has shifted his romantic sights from Jakobe’s younger sister Nanny to Jakobe. So, in private, the mother asks Jakobe whether she thinks that Peter’s “Christian background can be reconciled with our Jewish home.”
Jakobe has similar concerns, so she seeks out Peter’s brother at the government office where he works. As she passes the desks of two of the building’s receptionists, one sniffs aloud, “Yes, it’s obvious.” The other agrees: “A real Jewess.”
Upstairs, Peter’s brother offers her a “candid, honest observation” of her prospective match with Peter: “Namely, that his engagement to you is merely a hostile message to his family…They cannot recognize any happiness if it isn’t rooted in Christian faith.”
When Peter goes to Austria to work on a major project, Jakobe sends him a letter, talking about her evolving social conscience.“The importance of social justice is finally clear to me,” she writes. “I have reluctantly come to terms with my own underlying impulse to solidarity with the hungry, the needy, struggling toward the light, towards dignity and purpose in life, who belong to the future of humanity.”
Back in Copenhagen, Peter visits his newly widowed mother, who has moved from the country vicarage to a room in Peter’s brother’s Copenhagen flat. As his father was dying, she tells Peter, she and the older brother “decided to spare your father the sorrow of knowing you’re involved with a woman from a wealthy Jewish family.” Such is the old woman’s disdain that she hisses, almost spits the word “Jewish.” There is more. When Peter’s mother dies, he tells his brother that he is reluctant to attend her funeral because Jakobe would be unwelcome. The brother agrees.
Peter thinks he has escaped from a childhood that left him scarred by his father’s crabbed, almost poisonous brand of Christianity, and his family’s anti-Semitism. But he hasn’t. His ambitious plans for a system of canals and windmills for Denmark are thwarted by a bureaucrat. In these actions and this character, Peter sees reflections of the government’s corrupt relationship with “the powerful, moneyed classes.” Angry and frustrated, he lashes out at Jakobe, “and that goes for you, too.” She reacts as if struck, given how warmly she and her family have embraced and supported him and his ambitions. Still, they are reconciled.
One day, spontaneously, Jakobe volunteers at a YWCA street soup kitchen. However, she is sent away, told by the woman in charge that, “This is a Christian charity. I’m sure you understand that we can’t have people of your faith here.”
Rebuffed and stung, and with no marriage prospects, she asks her father for an advance on her inheritance. She wants to build her own alternative charity school for some of the city’s indigent children. Later, she explains to a newspaper reporter that Copenhagen’s schools “are so wretched, they usually most resemble penal colonies,” with predictable results.
“If some of the kids break the law, then the policemen are typically heavy-handed, striking them,” she says, then sending them to the workhouse. “And the only person who’s supposed to teach them wisdom and patience, the priest, talks only about burning in hell…So how are they supposed to learn the Golden Rule and Christian Charity, how to be decent human beings?”
A Fortunate Man, dubbed in English, is long and dark and drags some. Still, it reminds us that—wherever in the Diaspora Jews have settled—there are among us people driven by altruism and a passion for social justice.
* * *
It took me a while—and one false start—to get into the popular Netflix series Peaky Blinders, a dark British family gangster saga set mostly in the gritty, Midlands industrial city of Birmingham in the 1920s. A colorful, Jewish mobster named Alfie Solomons appears in the second season and becomes a recurring character. Based on a real London mobster of the same name, he’s played by the English actor Tom Hardy, speaking in a weary, gravelly voice.
Solomons runs a subterranean bootleg operation, disguised as a bakery, in the Camden Town section of London. He is a shifty, violent character, not above periodic betrayal, and he is very Jewish. Through his trimmed beard, he speaks with a distinctive, East End, Yiddish-inflected accent, dressed in a black frock coat and hat (not a Streimel), with a black kippah underneath. His bodyguards, similarly dressed, include one who gets involved in a shoot-out with the Peaky Blinders, the series’ title gang family.
Alfie is not above instigating a cynical assassination over his own, underground Seder table. But in some respects, the character is also a good “bad Jew.” He warns members of the Birmingham mob, who come to work for him, to stay away from Jewish women; he raises money for Seeing Eye dogs for blind Jewish children; and he tries to have his gang kill Oswald Mosley, the British fascist. A former army captain during World War I, Alfie retains an explosive antipathy to exiled, anti-Semitic, Russian nobles trying to organize a plot to overthrow the young Soviet regime.
The website Medium described Alfie Solomons as “The Scene-Stealingest Character of All Time,” their reviewer writing, “I’ve never understood if Alfie was meant to be a villain or comedic foil or some pick-a-mix of both, but I’ve never loved every second of someone’s screen time more.” Tom French, in the Den of Geek website, hailed Hardy’s performance: “Solomons is immediately engaging, coming across as eccentric, sadistic and damaged all at once… the character fits seamlessly into the world of Peaky Blinders.”
Photo credit: IMDb