How much slack should a reviewer cut a movie that's poorly constructed but about
an interesting or at least a potentially interesting subject? This is an
especially difficult decision to make if the subject matter might make the
critic appear insensitive by telling you that the emperor isn't fully clothed.
SHANGHAI GHETTO, directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, is one such
difficult picture to review. Certainly the story about Jews fleeing Hitler's
ravages to live out the war in the unlikely city of Shanghai is one that merits
consideration. This documentary, however, like the recent BLIND SPOT: HITLER'S
SECRETARY, has fatal flaws that needlessly diminish its effectiveness. If these
documentaries had been about any other subject, the critical reaction to both
would not have been so positive. The problem with SHANGHAI GHETTO, easily the
better of the two, is the needlessly poor quality of its archival prints and
SHANGHAI GHETTO uses a group of talking heads to tell much of its story.
Against the traditional bookcases and blank walls, these Jews, who went to
Shanghai for sanctuary during the war, tell their stories. The conditions in
Japanese-controlled Shanghai were quite primitive, but, thanks to relief
workers, the Jews managed to live a little better than the native Chinese and a
lot better than the Jews who weren't able to escape from Europe. The directors
could have told the Shanghai Jews' plight better and more succinctly in a short
film rather than a full-length documentary since there isn't a lot of material
In order to enliven the interviews, the filmmakers use footage of classic events
from Hitler's speeches to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and lesser known images
like the conditions the people faced in Shanghai during the war. Although it is
easy to obtain good quality video and still images from most of that era, what
the filmmakers show are all of such poor quality that it's hard to make much
out, which drastically lessens its impact. The images lack contrast, are murky
and are frequently too dark to be decipherable.
Although this documentary adds marginally to our understanding of the war, I
reflected after I left on the large number of documentaries about Hitler that we
have seen that have focused on the horrors of what he did. Why are there so few
documentaries that look at how the free world could have prevented the Holocaust
and the Second World War entirely by standing up to him early on rather than
attempt to appease him? Now there is a story that we haven't heard much about
and that cries out to be told.
SHANGHAI GHETTO runs 1:35. It is not rated but would be PG-13 for a few
horrific images and would be acceptable for kids around 11 and up.
Copyright © 2003 Steve Rhodes