Jun 21, 2014
Undoubtedly, even the National Socialists could not have dreamed up a character so hopelessly and negatively stereotypically Jewish as Woody Allen. As a jazz musician, lifelong proponent of psychoanalysis, alleged pedophile, super dork, weakling, and emotional cripple, all while being annoyingly nasally neurotic with a rather repugnant persecution complex, Allen makes the eponymous protagonist of Veit Harlan's Jud Süß (1940) seem like a super cool pimp. In fact, with his second mockumentary (the first mock documentary the director made was the 1969 work Take the Money and Run), Zelig (1983), Allen more or less validated the ostensibly anti-Semitic point made in the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940) aka Der ewige Jude directed by Fritz Hippler that Hebrews have a chameleon-like talent for transforming themselves into whatever people they happen to be living around. Indeed, while The Eternal Jew depicts a stereotypical orthodox Jew morphing into a European simply by changing his clothes and getting a haircut, Zelig (a film with a rather ironic title that means "blessed" or "dear departed soul" in Yiddish) portrays Allen as an American ghetto-bred Jew who can completely physically and psychologically morph into whatever race, class, or creed of people he happens to run into. Of course, whereas Hippler’s film portrays Jews as deceptive oriental parasites who pretend to be authentic Aryans so as to deceive and ultimately exploit the native European population, Allen’s film depicts the Sellers-esque tendency of the Hebraic protagonist as a “marvelous protective device.” Indubitably, one of the most embarrassingly Jewish films ever made, even for a Woody Allen work, Zelig is not just a rather personal work for the auteur, but also an allegory for Jewish assimilation in early 20th century America. Allen’s Forrest Gump (1994) avant la letter, the mockumentary features an aesthetic in the style of black-and-white 1920s film reels and oftentimes includes scenes of the director/writer/star inserted into old stock footage from authentic vintage newsreels. Featuring cameos from real-life Jewish intellectuals like bisexual feminist writer/film critic Susan Sontag, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, Viennese psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, kosher quasi-commie writer Irving Howe, and various other important individuals playing themselves, as well as stock footage of countless historical figures, including everyone from Joey Goebbels to Pope Pius XI, Zelig is probably the most seamlessly and meticulously assembled (notably, in the time that it took Allen to edit the film in post-production, the director managed to film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984)), over-intellectualized, strangely nostalgic, and history-heavy mockumentary ever made. Indeed, Zelig is a playful pomo work where Allen took the opportunity to molest history, as a work where, among other things, the director appears as a stormtrooper who causes a ruckus while Hitler gives a speech at a Nazi rally. Indeed, more than anything else, Zelig is post-holocaust American Jewish neurosis in celluloid form where a wacky and exceedingly neurotic Judaic with a cipher-like (non)personality tries to fit in and be accepted by pretending to be everyone except himself. If nothing else, the mockumentary is notable for featuring Woody Allen as both a Nazi and a negro, among countless other absurdities that make Zelig arguably the director's most ambitious film to date.
Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) is a magical chameleon-like Jew who can instantly transform into whoever he wants whenever he wants, as a sort of quasi-supernatural defense mechanism. The first major sighting of Zelig was in 1928 when novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald saw him transform from a right-leaning Boston-bred aristocrat to a poor democratic kitchen worker in the same night. As the lilly-licking Hebraic intellectual/would-be-filmmaker Susan Sontag states of Zelig’s legacy, “He was the phenomenon of the 20s. When you think that he was as well-known as Lindbergh…it’s really quite astonishing.” Commie social critic Irving Howe also chimes in regarding the kosher chameleon's legacy by stating, “His story reflected the nature of our civilization…the character of our times. Yet it was also one man’s story…and all the themes of our culture were there—heroism, will, things like that—but when you look back on it, it was very strange.” Like most 20th century Jewish figures that Jews and shabbos goys talk about in a puffery-plagued fashion, Zelig was born in a Jewish ghetto and was the son of a Yiddish actor, or as the narrator of the film states: “As a boy, Leonard is frequently bullied by anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part…and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites. They punish him often by locking him in a dark closet. When they are really angry…they get into the closet with him. On his deathbed, Morris Zelig tells his son…that life is a meaningless nightmare of suffering…and the only advice he gives him is to save string.” Ultimately, Zelig’s father scared his son to be afraid of any and everything, especially other people, so the boy somehow learned how to become a “human chameleon” of sorts who can camouflage himself in his social surroundings, turning himself into a tough Guido gangster, negro jazz musician, potato-famine-obsessed Irishman and countless other things in an almost instantaneous fashion. Naturally, when the media caught wind of Zelig's talent, he became an overnight sensation, though it would come at the price of the hyper neurotic yid's privacy and personality, among other things.
With Zelig’s growing popularity in the media, he becomes of interest to a female psychiatrist named Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who brings the nihilistically neurotic Hebrew in for testing and learns upon putting him under hypnosis that he has a uniquely unhealthy yearning for receiving approval from people around him, hence his peculiar proclivity towards perfectly mimicking them. As Dr. Fletcher concludes, “Like the lizard that is endowed by nature…with a marvelous protective device…that enables it to change color…and blend in with its immediate surrounding…Zelig, too, protects himself…by becoming whoever he is around.” Of course, Zelig’s transforming power does not trick everyone, as a commie leader complains regarding the truly wandering Jew: “This creature personifies Capitalist man. A creature who takes many forms to achieve ends…the exploitation of the workers by deception.” The communists’ perennial enemies in the Ku Klux Klan also see him as a threat because he is, after all: “a Jew who was able to transform himself…into a negro or Indian” thereupon making him a “triple threat” to the KKK. Of course, as a mensch who transforms himself into other people, Zelig does not really have much of a personality or a personal life, even if his popularity had made him rich, or as the narrator of the film comments regarding the protagonist: “Though the shows and parties…keep Zelig’s sister and her lover rich and amused…Zelig’s own existence is a nonexistence. Devoid of personality, his human qualities long since lost in the shuffle of life…he sits alone, quietly staring into space…a cipher, a nonperson, a performing freak.” Despite being a Jew, Zelig is a hopeless philistine who, upon attempting to develop an authentic personality of his own, discovers that he prefers watching baseball to reading classic books like Moby Dick. When the Hebraic Human Chameleon falls in love with Dr. Fletcher, she becomes convinced that she will never be able to cure Zelig. Meanwhile, Zelig’s half-sister Ruth (Mary Louise Wilson) is killed in a bizarre love triangle gone awry involving a cowardly Spanish bullfighter and the Jewish chameleon disappears from both the United States and the public spotlight as a result of his shock from the tragedy. When Zelig is finally found, he is brought back to Dr. Fletcher, who inevitably falls in love with the little changing man who she later ostensibly ‘cures,’ though he temporarily develops a personality that is violently intolerant of all other people.
Naturally, Zelig and Dr. Fletcher become a celebrity couple and the two get engaged, which is documented by the media, but two weeks before the wedding, a showgirl contacts the media and claims to have married the lapsed chameleon in Baltimore the year before and even had his baby for which he has neglected to pay child support. Of course, countless other women come forward claiming to be Zelig’s wives/baby’s momma, thus ruining the little man's reputation and romance with Dr. Fletcher. Indeed, ultimately the same news media that built Zelig up also breaks him down (rather ironically, this would also happen to Allen in real-life). In fact, one female Christian leader goes so far as declaring on live television: “Leonard Zelig sets a bad moral influence. America is a moral country. It’s a God-fearing country. We don’t condone scandals—scandals of fraud and polygamy. In keeping with a pure society, I say, lynch the little Heeb.” Plagued by bad press and overwhelming hatred, Zelig becomes ill again, disappears, and ends up in pre-Nazi Germany where he becomes a loyal brownshirt stormtrooper. In a Universal Newspaper newsreel entitled “National Socialists on the Rise,” Zelig is spotted by Dr. Fletcher, so she sails to Berlin, Germany the following week in the hope of rescuing her estranged patient/lover. During a Nazi rally speech where Hitler is about to make a joke about Poland, Zelig, who is standing on the same stage with big H, interrupts the Führer upon seeing Dr. Fletcher. Although the SS plans to catch and torture the human chameleon for his stereotypically rude Jewish behavior, Zelig mimics Fletcher’s flying talents in his final performance as a human chameleon and escapes back to the United States where the two are both declared national heroes. Naturally, in the end, Zelig and Dr. Fletcher get married. In the last scene of the film, the narrator remarks regarding Zelig’s marriage: “In the end, it was, after all, not the approbation of many…but the love of one woman that changed his life.” Of course, little did the narrator realize that Mia Farrow would spill the beans less than a decade after the release of Zelig regarding the fact that her then-lover had begun a rather dubious affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, thereupon ruining the director’s reputation permanently. Indeed, no one changed Allen's life more than the ethno-masochistic wench known as Mia Farrow, thus making Zelig seem strangely prophetic in retrospect.
In his 1983 review of Zelig, star New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote regarding Allen’s film: “Though it runs a mere but delicious 84 minutes, ''Zelig,'' his new, remarkably self-assured comedy, is to his career what the 15 1/2-hour ''Berlin Alexanderplatz'' is to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's and the three-hour-plus ''Fanny and Alexander'' is to Ingmar Bergman's. This incongruity in running time may be a law of nature. Woody Allen is much shorter than Mr. Bergman and never has he tipped the scales to equal the heft Mr. Fassbinder was carrying around in the years before his death.” While Zelig may be one of Allen’s most inventive, ambitious, and accomplished films, it is certainly not his best and surely not a work that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with unrivaled epic arthouse masterworks like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Indeed, aesthetically speaking, Zelig is a one-note-wonder that is not much more than an intellectual novelty filled with famous Jewish intellectual figures and, had the work been any longer than its 79-minute running time, it would be nothing short of intolerable, as the novelty gets old quick. Still, I must give credit to Allen for including a fake interview with the infamous SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl, who is treated just like one of the Jewish intellectuals that is interviewed and could not have been interviewed in real-life as he had been executed via hanging in 1951 for his involvement in running concentration camps. Undoubtedly, Allen's inclusion of Pohl in the film is one of his sickest jokes yet, so I must give him credit for that, especially considering the director is a persecution-complex-ridden man who seems to believe that everyone is a closet anti-Semite. Of course, one of the more comical and ironic aspects of Zelig, especially on retrospect, is that, while the eponymous protagonist is portrayed as an involuntary sex fiend who impregnated countless women while in his “human chameleon” state, the real Woody Allen has proven to be quite infertile and about as sexually virile as his weak and frail body indicates, as demonstrated by the fact that he probably has no real biological children of his own (it has been recently revealed that the director’s sole supposed biological son, Ronan Farrow, is probably really the progeny of Frank Sinatra). Indeed, undoubtedly Allen's real-life story certainly pales in comparison to the fictional fantasy story he contrived for Zelig. With that being said, I think it is time that some iconoclastic video artist should come along and direct a pseudo-sequel to Zelig, albeit in documentary and opposed mockumentary form, where Allen's real legacy is assessed. Needless to say, such a film would hardly be a quirky comedy.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 3:16 PM
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