[Spoiler Alert: See the film before reading beyond the first paragraph of this review.]
Caroline Roboh’s film Shem participates in neither the cliché rituals of Hollywood nor the inconclusive, abstract detachment of French cinema. Hence it has been misunderstood by critics who fault it for the apparent incompleteness of its plot. In fact Shem yields its riches with a subtler mode of aesthetic interpretation, and this we can find in the fourfold method of interpretation that traditional scholars apply to Jewish and Christian sacred texts and that Dante builds in to his Divine Comedy. The four levels in this method of interpretation are pshat (simpleness)—the literal meaning, remez (hint)—the allegorical meaning, drash (homily)—the moral meaning, and sod (secret)—the mystical meaning. Understood in these four ways, Shem will be seen to offer a deeply touching, haunting, and healing image of man’s journey toward the meaning of life.
Pshat— the literal level:
The main character, Daniel, is not particularly likeable at the start but exudes a youthful vitality irresistible to others and to us. (He is played by the attractive Ash Newman in a performance that is fresh, subtle, various, committed, and forceful.) Despairing of his life of hedonism and self-absorption, Daniel responds to his grandmother’s challenge to find the grave of her father, a righteous rabbi who, after sending his daughter to England, died in Europe in 1939. Daniel follows clues on a journey from city to city in Western and then Eastern Europe, at last experiencing defeat in his quest. Reunited with his grandmother (played by Hadassah Hungar Diamant), he is told that she has learned in a dream that her father had in fact died in a Nazi extermination camp. The grave Daniel has been seeking never existed.
Remez—the allegorical level:
Hints that there is more than literal significance to the quest for a physical grave include several recurring visual and verbal motifs.
1. Awakening: The film begins with Daniel symbolically opening his eyes from sleep, and we see him being awakened several more times during the film. These images hint that Daniel’s hedonism, poly-sexuality, temper, rudeness, and arrogance are a form of sleep from which he is being awakened in the course of his journey to achieve the “one important thing” he has been given to do. He thinks it is to find his great-grandfather’s grave. He—and we—awaken to the realization that his true mission is something else.
2. Names: The title of the film means “name” in Hebrew. In each city, when asked his name, Daniel gives a false one. In the museum in Paris, he gives the ancient British name Alfred (after Dreyfus, he says). In Berlin he calls himself Henry, also a non-Jewish name, though we see him secretly typing his real name on a museum computer. When he enters the synagogue in Prague, he calls himself David, the first time he has used a Jewish pseudonym, and one which begins with the same letter as his real name. This is followed by the transforming experience of seeing, on the walls of the otherwise empty synagogue, the names of the Jewish dead killed by the Nazis. In Belgrade Daniel says his name is Paul, and the name’s association with Christianity is explicitly discussed. Finally in Sofia, to the man who will tell him the truth about what his great-grandfather actually did in life, Daniel gives his real name. Symbolically, Daniel is both avoiding and seeking himself. Having learned the truth about his great-grandfather (whose name, Theodor Weiss, means “Gift-of-God White”), Daniel finally becomes himself.
3. Hiding: In addition to the sleep imagery and the false names, Daniel engages in other forms of disguise, hiding, and avoidance, often related to his eyes. At different times he dresses in drag (with tears from his right eye drawn onto his face), is blindfolded, wears sunglasses in nightclubs, buys dope, pretends to poke himself in the eye with a pool cue, becomes blind drunk. (We see him with a real tear after he leaves the first person in his life who refuses to be seduced by him despite his beginning to fall in love with her.). Another form of hiding is sexual license: “I can have sex with anyone I want whenever I want,” he says, and he does.
4. Cities: The journey—to Paris, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, and Rome—traces Theodor Weiss through the European capital cities whose Jews disappeared into the Nazi attempt at annihilation, leaving only names and artifacts behind. In each city (until Sofia) the search turns up nothing but a slim reason to go to the next city. In all these places, the Jewish synagogues, museums, and libraries are often just closing and usually nearly empty. Former Jewish buildings and neighborhoods are populated by non-Jews. All the cities bespeak the destruction of European Jewry, the few living Jews constituting a tiny remnant.
5. Yarmulke: At every synagogue Daniel visits looking for information, the man in charge puts a yarmulke (skullcap) on Daniel’s head before he admits him to the building. Symbolically the hand of a Jew draws Daniel into participation in his own history. Daniel acquiesces in increasing respect for the places in which Jews have worshipped God and for the Jews expunged from them.
6. Words: Daniel is exposed to one repository after another of words and names—printed in books, written on papers, embossed on walls, carved on gravestones, called up on computer screens, and inscribed on “synagogue scrolls.” With no access to the written word that, as he will discover, his great-grandfather spent his life trying to preserve, Daniel learns the truth from living people. Early on, Daniel refuses to say the Shma (the Hebrew words of the central Jewish confession of faith in God’s unity) at the request of his grandmother. Later Zara, the young Jewish woman in Berlin who evokes Daniel’s incipient love by refusing to sleep with him, persuades him to repeat those words after her by rote, and he does.
7. Dead ends: People from whom Daniel hopes for information have died, recommended repositories of information have changed functions, records are absent, rooms are empty, clues yield no fruit, even physical alleys are blocked. Every lead seems to lead to a dead end.
8. Contemplation of death: After a night of debauchery in Prague, Daniel is taken next morning to the forest of Kuks Castle by a young man interested in Baroque art. Daniel brags about his “Baroque” affair with a mother and her son “at the same time,” whereupon the young man takes him to a group of sculptures called Betlém (Bethlehem), carved by Baroque sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun (1662–1738) in the natural sandstone rocks of the forest. The young man says that what really mattered to Braun was not his sculptures of vice and virtue at the castle nearby, but his meditation on death in sculptures doomed to disappear back into nature. “This is the true spirit of Baroque,” he says, “—man and religion bound together by the glorified representation of death.”
He takes Daniel to the Braun sculpture of Juan Garinus the Hermit. (Tempted by the devil to kill a maiden, Garinus gave himself the penance of living like a beast, crawling on the ground, never looking up at the heavens, until eventually he was forgiven. The sculpture pictures him crawling out of his cave, pursued by hounds. [See http://www.richtera.cz/betlemari/english/newfor/08_en.html.]) There Daniel reclines upon the sculpture and masturbates in his pants as the young man photographs him. Images of him pleasuring himself are intercut with images of religion and death—Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Theresa” (a hilarious juxtaposition), a crucified Christ, cupids, death’s heads. Daniel says, quietly and seductively to the camera, “Now that’s what I call Baroque.”
Several scenes later, sitting by the Danube in Budapest as the lights on the nearby bridge come on at dusk, Daniel is invited to converse with a young man walking a dog. He declines. The young man clarifies that he does not want a sexual liaison but rather company in his contemplation of death. Daniel declines.
In these two scenes sexual license and death are identified. In the first Daniel succumbs; in the second he does not. It is between these two scenes that the film presents Daniel’s spiritual turning points.
Drash—the moral level:
These are Daniel’s turning points: In awe he recognizes his responsibility to the dead; in humility he participates in a festive Jewish religious ceremony; in fear and despair he calls for help; in penitence he is rewarded with a divine promise and encouragement.
The first takes place in Prague after the Kuks Forest scene and after Daniel has been directed, as part of his apparently fruitless Kafkaesque search, to the grave of Franz Kafka. He comes to a Prague synagogue, which now contains nothing but the names of “all the Czech Jews who perished” in the Nazi Holocaust. Failing to find the name of Theodor Weiss here too, he is nevertheless moved. In his mind, he says to the dead, “I’m not a monument; I’m alive; I owe it to you to be alive.” Then, “every road I travel has your graves beneath it.” Here Daniel begins to transcend his quest for a grave and to intuit that the history of the dead is connected with his own. The central theme of the film is suggested: The dead cannot be found unless they live in the living.
But what does it mean to be living? In the next scene Daniel is invited to spend the Sabbath with the synagogue official. At the latter’s home Daniel experiences a traditional Sabbath in which the hostess blesses the Sabbath candles and the host blesses the bread and the wine. He does not know the ritual, but for the first time Daniel participates in a Jewish ritual by modestly uttering the word “amen.” He has begun to accept who he is.
In Budapest Daniel is chased in panic to a physical dead end, a locked gate. He chooses not turn back but to go up—several flights up the staircase of an abandoned tenement—until he comes to an empty apartment with empty rooms and there is nowhere left to go, an apparently final dead end. “Help,” he says, quietly, as if to God.
We next see him climbing over a wall into a cemetery, where he finds the name Theodor Weiss on a memorial stone. But this Weiss died in the 19th century—not the man whose grave he seeks. Another dead end. In frustration, Daniel falls into despair, whereupon an angel in the form of an old man with white hair suddenly appears (played by Hungarian-Jewish film director István Szabó).
“I’m sorry,” says Daniel.
“Can I help you?” asks the angel.
“It’s my fault,” says Daniel. “For once in my life I had something important to do, and I failed. I’m a failure. Basically a fake. I’m never going to find his grave.”
“You will find what you’re looking for,” says the angel.
“It’s impossible,” says Daniel. “I’m sorry. I’m such a stupid fool.”
“You are not,” says the angel. And then, three times with kindness, “Continue your way.”
Then the angel is suddenly gone, and Daniel continues his way.
In these turning points, we find that the moral journey of the film is from death to life—from the living death that is deluded, hedonistic self-regard to the death-conquering life that is human connection. The final breakthrough is prepared for by what Daniel learns in the synagogue of Sofia.
Sod—the mystical level:
One motif not mentioned above takes the form of an apparently unresolved sub-plot. Through the film we become aware that Daniel is being secretly observed (Paris to Berlin), cared for and reported on (Prague), saved from death (Budapest), again followed (Belgrade), and finally solicited for information (Sofia to Rome) by a group of spies directed by a Christian prelate called only Monsignor. On the train from Sofia to Rome, we discover that the prelate’s followers believe Theodor Weiss to have been seeking or hiding the “stones from the Temple,” which they believe to have great monetary value. This is perhaps a reference to the Urim and Tumim, stones or jewels sewn into the breastplate of the High Priest of the Temple at Jerusalem through which prophetic knowledge was conveyed. In any case, all that we see of the Monsignor is a jeweled ring. The Monsignor’s representative suggests that Daniel is being manipulated by others (those who have helped him, given him clues, shown him kindness), that Daniel knows what his great-grandfather was “really” doing, and that he should come to them when he is ready to admit as much and “when you have decided to be a wealthy man.”
Because this sub-plot leads to no just deserts or villainous triumph for the spies, some critics have accused the film of bad editing in leaving this business “unfinished.” In fact, the sub-plot is all it needs to be: a precisely structured externalization of all the temptations that try to deflect Daniel from his spiritual journey. The spies of the Monsignor, like Daniel’s hedonism and the preoccupation with death, are a representation of the yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse, which according to Jewish mystical thought is implanted in every human being as an inner drive whose worldly temptations it is man’s mission to resist or channel. The evil impulse is necessary to life—because of it we are moved to eat, to reproduce, to build a house. But one whose yetzer ha-tov (the good impulse) does not chasten and prevail over his yetzer ha-ra lives a life of material self-indulgence and spiritual emptiness.
Specifically, the stone-seekers tempt Daniel to believe that his great-grandfather was not a righteous rabbi at all but a hedonist like Daniel, who secretly sought the “stones from the Temple” for the sake of his own wealth and power. They promise worldly wealth in exchange for Daniel’s agreement to interpret the life of Theodor Weiss in their worldly terms. This is Daniel’s final temptation by the yetzer ha-ra.
By this point in his journey, however, Daniel has discovered the truth. What Daniel learned from an eyewitness in the Sofia synagogue is that Theodor Weiss had gone from city to city in Europe in order to warn Jews to hide the “synagogue scrolls” from the Nazis so that “the next generation can study the Torah.” Daniel has found not a grave but a life—in fact, a life lived for others and for God. Rejecting the materialist interpretation of Weiss’s life, Daniel remains faithful to its spiritual meaning, reporting the truth to his grandmother, whom he meets again in Rome.
Daniel’s feeling of defeat at not finding the grave is challenged at the end by the news that the grave never existed. Was the journey a waste? Or has Daniel found something far more valuable? Rejecting the temptation of worldly wealth, Daniel makes of his quest something akin to what Theodor Weiss made of his life. Daniel has chosen solidarity with his great-grandfather, hence participation in the past, present, and future of his people. In doing so, he has risen out of the death that is sensual self-absorption and self-delusion and into living human relationship. Thus he has completed his mission, though the real mission is not what he thought it was. As the mission of Theodor Weiss was to fight the Nazi intention by striving to preserve the Torah “for future generations,” Daniel’s real mission has been to subdue the yetzer ha-ra and to preserve his own Jewish self through meaningful human relations. Hence the film becomes a vision of the survival of Judaism in living Jews despite the destruction of European Jewry and alienation in its remnants.
The film’s final mystical significance is this: Daniel is not only a young Jew alienated from his people, religion, and history. He is also an embodiment of modern man in the grip of physical pleasure, emotional impulse, and intellectual confusion, cut off from both past and future by ignorance of the spiritual context of life and of its challenge to combat rather than embrace death. Daniel’s journey is a journey to wholeness, to the meaningful integration of body, heart, and mind in relation to a world of the spirit redeemed from death and despair by small acts of kindness, generosity, and sacrifice, to which, in spite of himself, his spirit is drawn by its own truest hunger.
This is why the film is in places non-realistic, almost dream-like and mystical. Like the purpose of Daniel’s quest, the purpose of the film is not what we at first think. It shows us the death that is worldliness in order to lead us to insight about the life that lies in human spiritual connectedness in the present and through time.
The film ends with the grandmother sitting in a public square on a suitcase. She is about to leave this world in which there is no final destination but only the suitcases we sit on temporarily on our journey. It reminded me of the following tale:
A Jew with an important question traveled to consult a famous holy rabbi for an answer. When he entered the rabbi’s room, he saw no furniture but a table, a chair, and books. Surprised that so great a rabbi would live in so sparse a room, he asked “Where is all your furniture?”
The rabbi replied, “Where is yours?”
“Mine?” said the Jew; “but I’m just a traveler; I’m just passing through.”
“So am I,” said the rabbi.
Before she leaves, his grandmother shares a drink of soda with Daniel, whom she loves and who loves her. Her toast is l’chaim—to life.