First Run Features // 2008 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // June 15th, 2009
Each stone is like a page from the Prophet's book.
Since the fourteenth century, the Jewish population of Prague was the lifeblood of the economy and integral to the city's politics. In spite of this, anti-Semitic fervor got the better of the Christian royalty. The Jews were expelled from the city time and again, only to be asked back in once the citizens realized they couldn't function without that part of the population. After hundreds of years and a holocaust later, however, they still survive in the city.
There is a place in Prague special to the Jewish people. It is the Old Jewish Cemetery, a considerably small structure for the thousands upon thousands of Jews that lay under the earth. The story of this cemetery, the subject of House of Life, is the history of Jews in Europe. In many ways, their history has otherwise been decimated at the hands of the Nazis, so this cemetery is a true window into the past. While it seems like an important site to study and preserve, the documentary lacks focus, unfortunately, making it seem more like a History Channel gloss over than a serious study of what the cemetery means to the Jewish citizens of Prague.
There is a lot of interesting information here, however, and the piece is worth watching. But there is potential for further depth. Originally, the cemetery was built during the plague, outside of town as the only place for Jews to bury their dead. That it was the only place did not change with the health situation, however, and for many hundreds of years, this was it. Obviously, this small plot of land was grossly incapable of handling so many bodies in a traditional way, so bodies were buried on top of one another, in layers of graves and dirt and more graves. On top sits head stones, cluttered ten or fifteen to a plot, giving information about the multitude of souls resting underneath.
It is in this information that directors Allan Miller and Mark Podwal form their story. Detailing parts of the early history of Jews in Prague, they tell us of one of the oldest graves, that of Rabbi Low, the man of legend who brought the Golem to life. In more modern times, the graveyard was the only place that Jewish children were allowed to play. We hear stories from elderly men and women reminiscing about the good times when the stones were taller than they and they'd lose their friends in the shadows. A story from one woman concerning rumors of young men and women having sex under the gravestones (though, of course, she really wouldn't know anything about that) brings up a lot of images, both romantic and disturbing.
The piece is narrated by actress Claire Bloom (Limelight), who does a good job with the lines but the film is over dependant on her. On top of that, all the commentary from Czech scholars, historians, and Rabbis are dubbed lending it, again, a feeling of cable television. I would rather read subtitles and hear the emotion in these peoples' voices than have an easy to understand translation told to me.
The DVD from First Run Features is standard issue all the way. The full frame picture looks fine but unspectacular. The sound, as well, is easy to hear with little background noise, but very little going on with it. For extras, we have a measly set of bios and a photo gallery.
House of Life is a short piece that is well worth checking out, but don't expect to come away from it with anything but further questions. This is a good jumping off point, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site