Jacky Comforty: The Optimists, 2000

reviewed by Gareth Jones© 2006

Named after the pre-war Sofia jazz band, The Optimists, which delivers the film one of its key witnesses together with a musical exploration of the complex and cosmopolitan Sephardic culture of the Balkans, the film’s title refers obliquely to what in earlier days might have been called an Act of God, or even a miracle, namely the eleventh hour rescue of Bulgarian Jews from transport to Nazi death camps. This highly creative documentary delivers the story with a marriage of personal testimony and historical analysis without dispelling the inherent mystery of the outcome or the filmmakers’ underlying faith in human nature.

The film has the beguiling appeal of a family scrapbook. It is almost possible to miss the multiple layers of irony concealed in the title, to be lulled by the soft-spoken narrator who introduces the lovingly restored snapshots of days-gone-by: “This is Rachamim [“mercy” in Hebrew, a pleasing leitmotif] Comforty and his two wives… They weren’t married to each other at the same time,” he reassures viewers with almost subliminal humor, “they were traditional, and they were also modern.” And then he proceeds to recount how they were seized before dawn one morning in March 1943, destined for Treblinka, only to be released inexplicably the same evening. Admitting that he is Rachamim’s grandson, the narrator reveals that only this quirk of history allowed him to be born or the film to be made. This admission leads viewers on a political and metaphysical detective trail to piece together the causes of that reprieve and of his very existence. Simultaneously, it places the film within the Holocaust subgenre of “second generation reconstruction” [1], although in this case what is at issue is not actual murder, but the 8,500 murders narrowly averted (with more to follow).

From this moment, the film faces all the challenges of proving a negative, for while mass murder can be pursued with the vengeance of the Furies, it is less clear how one should present or explain a last minute stay of execution. Although the filmmakers follow the trail with immense seriousness—tracing the centuries-old co-existence of monotheisms in Bulgaria, the shared struggle against Ottoman oppression, the liberal Constitution, the growth of racist ideology under the pro-Nazi monarchy, the imposition of the Nuremberg-style “Law for the Defence of the Nation,” and naming the genocidal collaborators, as well as political heroes who made a brave stand against the deportations—the prevailing tone is beyond irony. Instead, it is filled with euphoria and gratitude to friends, with the solidarity of the rescued and rescuer in the assertion of fundamental human values, rather than with an objective assessment or a historical argument.

This is a very personal film, which took twelve years to plan, four months to shoot, and four years to edit. It uses 200 hours of footage and a selection of 5,000 photographs of Bulgarian Jewish life (many discovered in shoe-boxes in the family’s possession), a collection of photographs that is now referred to by the US Holocaust Museum as the Comforty Collection. All of this is condensed into 82 minutes of highly crafted montage, which inevitably excludes as much as it contains.

Not surprisingly given the upbeat title, The Optimists does not quite account for how such a well-integrated, multi-cultural society was so quickly derailed into anti-Semitic fascism and became Hitler’s first ally, even if Germany was Bulgaria’s largest trading partner. At the same time, however, some critics have missed the cruel historical irony the film underlines so well. [2] Precisely because of its reliability as a willing cohort of the Nazis, Bulgaria was never occupied (and King Boris’s son, Simeon Rilski, has pointed to this fact as a political justification for the Three-Power Pact) and, despite the secret protocol signed by Bulgaria to implement the Nazis’ Final Solution, orders were issued not from Berlin but straight from the King’s Palace. These orders could be challenged, both in Parliament and on the streets, where the protests by 10,000 demonstrators persuaded King Boris to put his deportation order on hold (exposing perhaps the inherent weaknesses and contradictions of monarchical fascism), before he suddenly died—another irony of divine mercy.

The film sees itself as a call to decent individuals everywhere to stand up and make a difference. Who could disagree? Bulgarians clearly acted well in forcing their government to back down, though the possible inference that there were no friendships between Jews and Gentiles elsewhere in Europe or that honest intercultural relationships can solve historical conflict seem somewhat simplistic. One might equally suppose that Boris simply did not have the military resources to impose his will against a substantial (but not overwhelming) section of his own people. “Theirs was the only Jewish community to survive intact in Nazi Europe,” states the Comforty Media website, but a comparable if not better record can be claimed by Albania, Bulgaria’s Balkan neighbor (which was occupied), where King Zog’s government refused to release even the names of the Jewish population and the German Foreign Office finally persuaded the SS to desist for fear of popular reprisals. [3]

Although dates are scrupulously indicated and the order of events is faithfully recounted, the film narrative’s search for direct links from personal initiative to political consequence occasionally becomes unclear or tendentious. The personal archive of photographs is both informative and evocative, the presentation sustained by an excellent sense of rhythm assisted by ironic—sometimes sarcastic—musical interludes (both US jazz and Sephardic, chromatic folk music) and deft, assured picture edits from professionals who clearly know their métier. However, in its search for the uplifting and the luminous, this inspiring film resorts to euphemisms at several turns and its resolutely upbeat narration sometimes jars with the remarkable new footage the filmmakers unearthed in the Sofia archives (made newly available post-1989), which shows, for instance, the embarkation of Jewish deportees on Danube paddle-boats bound for Vienna and oblivion (an unexpected variation on the railway motif) or detailed shots of crammed transport trains. The filmmakers may have underestimated the emotional impact of this footage, which should preclude any “happy ending” for reasons of good taste. These people are about to die at the hand of Bulgarians, not just because they are Jews, but because they are non-Bulgarian Jews.

The film radically underestimates the link between popular Bulgarian enthusiasm for Hitler’s gift of Dobroudja, Thrace, and Yugoslav Macedonia to a “Greater Bulgaria” and the resulting failure to defend the native Jews of Thessaloniki from colonial annexation. Those same cattle trucks transported 11,000 Jews in and through Bulgaria to their deaths—a crime immortalized in the post-war East German-Bulgarian co-production of Konrad Wolf’s Stars (Sterne/Zvezdi, 1959), which should be seen as a balancing pendant to The Optimists and which closes with the transport train dispatched to Auschwitz by the fascist Bulgarian militias carrying the Ladino Ruth despite the efforts of a decent German sergeant in league with the ineffectual local resistance.

Only the Jews of Bulgaria proper were saved, and though the distinction is acknowledged in its tone and timbre in this open, honest film—and a fact already admirable in view of Europe’s calamitous failure to protect its Jewish neighbors (Vichy willingly deported its own Jews)—The Optimists, nonetheless, poses problems concerning the relative “status as witness” of the lucky survivor telling of his good fortune beside the eternally silent victim whose torment will never be heard.

Bulgaria was, after all, on the wrong side, and one wonders whether the filmmakers are entitled to congratulate all in sight with such affable aplomb. How does one know, for instance, that everyone interviewed is telling the truth after fifty years? The film takes a great deal on trust, and its plaudits and commendations are sometimes too easily won. Occasionally during this voyage of rediscovery one senses a hidden discomfort at this splendid reunion with the returning, filmmaking (grand-)son, which prompts one to wonder whether the filmmaker was always aware of his personal impact on his subject matter and his interviewees, a concern that the agenda surrounding the eulogized reception of the film does little to ease. Of course, it is right that Yad Vashem should recognize the Sofia baker who rescued his Jewish neighbors in his cavernous oven with such eery, almost biblical foreshadowing. But the posthumous awards to Bulgarian prelates at the New York première of The Optimists in the presence of Bulgarian and Israeli dignitaries raises issues that go beyond the admirable resistance of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Has Bulgaria yet joined Germany in public atonement for its role in the Holocaust? Can the historical record be wiped clean by the personal courage of the “Just Among the Nations”?

Perhaps the most painful irony of The Optimists is the one the film conveys with perfect innocence: despite the solidarity of their neighbors and the mercy Rachamim’s name implored, after 1945 the rescuees nonetheless opted for aliyah, for emigration to Palestine, and they have not returned. Bulgaria’s once proud Jewish community is drastically depleted; the Jewish witnesses in the film now testify from Israel, where the thriving Bulgarian culture of Jaffa is rapidly becoming a matter of distant memory.

Gareth Jones, Scenario Films Ltd., Cambridge


Notes

1] “Holocaust Documentaries Move Towards the Personal,” Forward (11 January 2002): “As in other films of return, a child of survivors journeys with a camera not only into Europe but into the past.”

2] Dana Stevens refers to “occupied Bulgaria” in his review of the film: “The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust,” New York Times (21 October 2005); Bruce Ingram refers to the “courageous opposition to SS orders” in his review for the Pioneer Press Online.

3] From the archives of the Foreign Ministry: Memo of meeting of 17 October 1943 between LR von Thadden and Gruppenführer Müller “concerning the technical implementation of the Jewish question in the newly occupied territories.” Albania: “He (Müller) fully concurred with the position of the Foreign Ministry, that any action carried out against the will of, or without the complicity of, the Albanian Government, would have injurious effects and might provoke serious complications in Albania.” This note was preserved in the Albanian State Archives and was handed to this writer by the curator. Von Thadden represented the German Foreign Ministry in Albania at the time, Müller the SS. Both were aware of the protection enjoyed by Albania’s Jewish community, as expressed by the Government (in refusing to deliver requested information—such as biographical notes and ethnic identities)—and supported by the people. The Jewish diaspora had played a millennial role in Albania (as expressed in the country’s founding myths) and was not easily distinguishable from the general populace.


The Optimists, USA, 2000
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Jacky Comforty
Screenplay: Jacky and Lisa Comforty
Cinematography: Yoav Ben-David, Sid Lubitsch, Ivan Varimezov
Music: Stuart Rosenberg
Producers: Jacky and Lisa Comforty
Awards: The Peace Prize, Berlin International Film Festival 2001; First Prize for “Documenting the Jewish Experience,” Jerusalem International Film Festival 2000; CINE Golden Eagle 2000;
Best Documentary, Hope and Dreams Film Festival 2001

Jacky Comforty: The Optimists, 2000

reviewed by Gareth Jones© 2006

Updated: 22 Nov 06