SOMEHOW THE nightmarishness that attends images of Hitler and his growing empire never disappears. (It lingers even as you watch newsreel footage of southern cops turning their dogs on civil rights demonstrators, or South African police doing the same to apartheid protesters.) A few shots of der Fuehrer giving his pseudo-Roman salute to his marching goons is enough to set the chills for "Shanghai Ghetto," a touching documentary about Jewish flight to China.
But this movie, produced and directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, is less about fear than the triumph of hope.
Triumph, that is, that came in small, torturous rations. This is a film about Jews that escaped Nazi genocide by emigrating to the most impoverished corner of Shanghai, China.
After Kristallnacht -- a night of mass destruction of Jewish-owned or run property in Germany -- it was clear that German (and not long after, all European) Jews were in great danger. By then, it was all but too late. It was impossible for Jews to get visas to travel anywhere. And so-called civilized countries, such as the United States, Great Britain and some 30 other nations, refused to change their immigration policies to accommodate them.
All roads were closed -- except one. It was possible, many Jews discovered, to secure passage to Shanghai without papers. Although the Japanese -- engrossed in the infamous business of subjugating the Chinese -- controlled the harbor, they allowed Jews and others to enter certain corralled zones of the city without papers. At least 20,000 came there, with their European homes and loved ones facing certain destruction.
Through interviews with former residents of Shanghai (most of them now in the United States), and footage of the still-existent Jewish ghetto there (shot secretly in China with digital cameras), the filmmakers re-evoked the experience of those who moved from one end of the world to the other, into the unknown.
We hear from those who took that voyage of hope. They are older now. They were children then. They remember idyllic childhoods in Germany, at the hinterland of their recollection. Then comes the voyage and the new life.
Thanks to the work of international Jewish philanthropy and the refugees' resourcefulness and limited means, housing and food was made available. And eventually, the new residents re-created their old world -- a small city of bakeries, newspapers, theaters and sporting facilities.
But conditions were atrocious. Flush toilets were nonexistent. Drinking water was fouled. Disease was everywhere. The summer baked the city to temperatures of 100-degrees plus in the shade.
But there was much to be grateful for. The poor Chinese who lived in the adjoining section of the quarter had even less means. And the Jews remaining in Europe were being interned and executed by the millions. It wasn't until the end of the war, when information about the Holocaust came to light, that the Shanghai Jews took fuller measure of their freedom.
The movie traces the course of their lives in Shanghai. At first they benefited from the indifference of the occupying Japanese. But after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese (now allies with Germany) interned many of the international refugees (the English and Americans) and created a ghetto for the Jews. Starvation and poverty intensified. From then on, Shanghai Jews rode their luck, ducking from Allied aerial attacks (Shanghai was a Japanese target, after all) and waiting for news from the outside. The dropping of the atom bombs in Japan, causing the Japanese to leave Shanghai, would change their lives.
The real power of the film comes from the interviewees, people such as Harold Janklowicz and Betty Grebenschikoff, who relive their experiences with touching anecdotes, while historians Irene Eber and others provide deeper context. And it's Eber who provides one of the most telling statements about this episode in Jewish history. "Among the squalor, the poverty, the hunger and this feeling of 'What's going to be with us? Where will all this end? And will it ever end?,' " she says, "There still is the human spirit reasserting itself."
SHANGHAI GHETTO (Unrated, 95 minutes) -- Contains images of Nazi atrocity and emotionally distressing anecdotes. At Visions/Cinema/Bistro Lounge.