Uri Barbash is well-known for his artistic honesty, leading the circle of Israeli filmmakers interested in a critical look at Israeli political issues and dealing with issues of contemporary reality in a harsh and uncompromising fashion. He is best known for the prizewinning and popularly acclaimed Beyond the Walls (1984), an unrestrained portrayal of Arab-Jewish relations in the brutal environment of an Israeli prison. Also a prize-winning film, One of Us (1989) takes place against the background of the first intifada and deals with an army cover-up. His dramatic TV mini-series Kastner Trial (1994) was also a prize-winner.
Barbash's latest film, Kapo in Jerusalem, sheds light on a complex moral dilemma. The film is made in a minimalist style, using talking heads. The script and acting are superior, but the film in its entirety is a bit drawn-out and even somewhat tedious.
Based on a true story, Bruno is a medical doctor, who was chosen to be the kapo of a block at Auschwitz. He speaks to the camera from his Haganah outpost before the 1950 battle for Ramat Rachel. His wife, Sarah, speaks to the camera from their modest Jerusalem apartment, with their little baby in her arms. Others tell their stories also -- a postman, a butcher, a doctor and more—with much pathos and persuasiveness.
In his own reflections on what he went through, Bruno felt that he tried his utmost to save people, to lessen their suffering, to help those that he could. But he often resorted to tough measures to keep discipline in his block. The stories that are told show the difficult decisions that he had to make. For example, he rationed the food as fairly as possible, even though some would have wanted it otherwise, such as a famous poet who demanded extra food for himself. In addition, Bruno had a shoe-making workshop set up in his block because he knew that without sturdy shoes his men would succumb very quickly.
After the war, Bruno found and married his sweetheart, Sarah, who had been a pianist in Warsaw before the war, and they came to Jerusalem. Life was not easy for them because so many people recognized him from that period. She becomes pregnant and he eventually joins the Haganah, but her life is filled with awful anxiety and depression, given all that she had gone through and continues to suffer as a Holocaust survivor who is not easily accepted and integrated into the emerging Jewish society in Israel in the early years of the state.
This is a film which raises many issues dealing with morality at a time when morality was not so clear-cut. Bruno is very blunt and honest in talking about those years. In fact, near the end of the film, he says he wanted to save people from their own fears and humiliation. Kapo in Jerusalem is a hard-hitting film about the impossible choices that an ordinary Jew was forced to make during a terrible time.