Directors: Stefan Sarazin, Peter Keller (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Egypt, the Sinai desert. A Hasidic Jew is marching through the blistering heat. He’s in the full gear: large black hat, black suit and thick black coat. He is very much alone. We hear his thoughts in voiceover.
Cut back to: Alexandria’s once huge Jewish community. They’re at a funeral which leaves only 9 male Jews left in the city. This is a problem as it’s Pessach next week. And they need 10 men to celebrate Pessach (the women don’t count). There’s something in their rental agreement that says that if they can’t celebrate Pessach, they lose their status as a community and all their property and religious artefacts go into the hands of the Egyptian State. That’s a Thing, isn’t it?
Google tells me that at the last count, there were only 12 Jews in Alexandria, so the lack of Jewish men is a possibility. But, if that’s the case, why don’t they ask if someone could come over for a couple of days from Cairo, rather than ringing Jerusalem? The only person im Jerusalem who’s free is Benyamin who has literally just arrived from Brooklyn. Ben is sent off the Alexandria, but spends so much time buying Pessach food (which presumably they don’t have in Egypt) that he misses his flight.
The next flight is in a week, and it doesn’t occur to Ben to fly from Tel Aviv to somewhere else and then into Alexandria. It can’t be a money thing, as he’s perfectly happy to offer hundreds of dollars to a taxi driver to take him. Now, I may be obsessing about the unlikelihood of many of the devices use to set up the film, and maybe I should just sit back and enjoy it. But there is so much moralising to come in the next couple of hours, that surely it’s reasonable to demand a credible plot.
This brings us to the next plot development. The taxi leaves Ben on the Egyptian border where he boards a bus. The antisemitic blokes at the back of the bus object to Ben’s presence and demand that the driver throw him off. The driver seems sympathetic, and polls the passengers. A slim majority is for keeping Ben on the bus. But, after some people get on and others get off, there’s a new poll and Ben is thrown off in the middle of the desert miles away from anywhere. The driver explains “we’re a democratic country”.
what? What? WHAT? Let’s ignore the obvious that a US citizen being left in Egypt to die of thirst would lead to an international incident. Could we mention the insidious tropes about Arab antisemitism? Imagine an analogous film where racists cause a Black man to be thrown off a bus in the middle of a desert. It’s not that it couldn’t be made, but an incident like this would be accompanied by outrage (or worst case with racist pride). Here it’s just shrugged off as “just one of those things that happens.”
One more thing. If the place is so isolated, why does the bus fucking stop there? But let’s move on. After walking in the sweltering heat for a while, Ben meets Adel, a Bedouin, or former Bedouin, as we have a subplot about the way in which Bedouins are forced off their land and into the tourist industry. All we need to know is that we have an ultra-Orthodox Jew and an observant but less devout Muslim. Have you got the slightest idea what’s going to happen next?
We learn that although there are slight difference between Judaism and Islam, the two religions have much more in common than you’d think (especially if you are the moron the directors take you for). Jews eat kosher food, Muslims Halal. Both religions have extended prayer sessions in strange languages many times a day, Muslims have many name for God, Jews have none. You wonder how they missed the Salaam-Shalom comparison at the 5-minute brainstorming session in which the film was written.
Nicht ganz Koscher was made in Germany, which is not the first country I’d go to to look for a sophisticated explanation of the religious dimensions of the Middle East conflict. What could be worst at moralising philosemitism than a German film? I’ll tell you what – German critics responding to the film. Because, you might have a problem with the settlements and Apartheid, but that’s only because you don’t understand that everything would be fineif the Palestinians weren’t so tetchy.
Let’s look at some of those reviews in the German press. Apparently “Jews and Arabs living together are much less conflict-laden then you’d think … Jews, Muslims and Christians generally enjoy a relaxed life together.” Conflict is “just in the minds of the political élites”. One critic is a bit upset that Adel “provokes Ben with critical remarks about Israel’s politics”. What are these critical remarks? Responding to Ben’s attempts to excuse Israel, he asks: “So who is bombing Gaza? Switzerland?”
Like much of the liberal German discussion of Palestine/Israel, Nicht ganz Koscher is intellectually dishonest, preaching mutual religious understanding while insisting on maintaining the imbalanced status quo. Ben’s piousness is exploitative – he can’t carry things on the Shabbat, so he gets Adel to do it. He nearly makes them both die of thirst because of his obsessive ritual hand washing. And the orthodoxy he adheres to – which bans women from working and gays from existing – is deeply sexist.
The film does have it’s moments. When it gets off its high horse, it is capable of entertaining some interesting ideas. But it quickly flees from them as soon as they are raised. And the resolution of the film’s main dilemma involves doing something which is obvious from the start, could have been achieved without anyone marching through any desert, and is entirely dependent on the police holding a passport but not looking at the photo inside which shows someone with different coloured skin.
It is all, unfortunately, risible. And for a comedy, it’s really not funny. Nicht ganz Koscher appears to have been only released in Germany so far. I wouldn’t clamour to get it anywhere else.