A World War II thriller, a love triangle set against the backdrop of 1960s Poland, an Anthony Hopkins-narrated documentary about controversial Las Vegas newspaperman Hank Greenspun, a South American coming-of-age saga, docs and shorts and narrative features - all are part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, which begins this weekend with a characteristically strong lineup of films exploring diverse facets of Jewish culture and history.
Between now and May, 22 films from a dozen countries are set for screenings in Center City and surrounding environs. The new James Polshek-designed National Museum of American Jewish History is one of the PJFF's venues, along with the Gershman Y, the Prince Music Theater, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, International House, the Hiway in Jenkintown, and other screens.
The festival's 31st season opens Saturday at the Gershman with My Best Enemy, Wolfgang Murnberger's bizarrely jaunty wartime thriller, set in Vienna in 1938, just as Hitler is poised to take over. Moritz Bleibtreu and Georg Friedrich star as childhood friends - Bleibtreu the wealthy Jewish scion of a family of Viennese art dealers, Friedrich the son of the family's housekeeper, now a member of the SS. But an identity switcheroo leads to the latter's torture and interrogation at the hands of the Nazis, unwittingly slapping around one of their own.
On Sunday at the Prince, look for Scott Goldstein's fascinating doc about Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun - a cigar-chomping character who ran guns to Israel, defied the Commie witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, and lured Howard Hughes to Vegas, antagonizing the mob. The film is chock-full of great archival footage (Richard Nixon, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and Hughes, too) and interviews with family members, Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, and many others. Sir Anthony Hopkins lends his voice to the proceedings; director Goldstein will be on hand for a Q&A.
Front-loaded with strong fare, PJFF's inaugural week also includes Little Rose, set in 1960s Poland and exploring many of the same themes of The Lives of Others (i.e., government surveillance of artsy types), on Sunday at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Little Rose's star, Magdalena Boczarska, is set to appear along with director Jan Kidawa-Blonski.
And on Monday, Prisoner of Her Past, a documentary about Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Reich's search for the facts behind his mother's disappearance in World War II Poland, screens at WHYY. Reich is scheduled to introduce the film - a powerful personal journey - and field questions afterward.
As it has in past years, PJFF31 will also feature a New Filmmakers Weekend (March 17-19) and offer a Documentaries & Dialogue slate (Jan. 9-Feb. 6) designed to foment debate, discussion, and discourse.
For information on tickets, times, and venues, and for the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival's complete 2011-2012 schedule, go to www.pjff.org.