The feature film debut of celebrated photographer and commercial director Neal Slavin, the 2001 drama Focus is based on Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel about a meek, quietly conformist personnel manager at a New York company whose life is transformed after he gets a new pair of glasses. “They make you look Jewish,” his mother complains, and sure enough longtime neighbors and co-workers start looking askance at him. William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a Presbyterian who traces his American ancestry back to the 18th century and a life-long single man who cares for a wheelchair-ridden mother. When he falls under suspicion of Hebrew ancestry, his middle class Brooklyn neighborhood puts him on “the list” and the anti-Semitic harassment begins, as it does with the Jewish news agent on the corner (played by David Paymer). Laura Dern co-stars as Gertrude, a New York girl who is herself mistaken for Jewish when she interviews for a job at Lawrence’s company, which has a strict hiring policy: Christian only.
Focus is based on the sole novel by playwright Arthur Miller, which was written while World War II was still being fought and published in 1945. “It was probably the first novel about anti-Semitism ever published in this country,” said Miller in a 2001 interview, and it made some publishers nervous at the time.
Television has offered epic portraits of the Holocaust, notably the excellent 1978 mini-series Holocaust. This 1980 TV movie, based on the memoir by Holocaust survivor Fania Fénelon and scripted for television by Arthur Miller, is a far more intimate drama and one of the most powerful TV events of its era.
Vanessa Redgrave was a controversial choice to play the French nightclub singer in Auschwitz (this was a few years after her notorious pro-PLO speech at the Oscars) but her performance is a triumph of dignity and desperation, strength and weakness, resolve and guilt, as she sings for her survival as a member of a makeshift women’s orchestra made up of prisoners. The scene where Fania is brought in from the barracks to “audition” for the orchestra with a song from “Madame Butterfly” presents the simple but profound contradictions that run through the entire film. Weak and frail from the work details and starvation rations, Fania tentatively picks out the melody on a grand piano glaringly out of place in this anonymous building filled with reflexively obedient women. As her voice comes in clear and full of ache and emotion, their heads (all instinctively lowered, so as not to make eye contact with the German officer in the room) slowly rise, and their eyes open, awestruck and moved beyond their expectations by this beauty cutting through the horror of their circumstances for a brief moment.