“Jump”: a Really Bad Movie (13 cents)

We saw “Jump” at the Washington Jewish Film Festival last night. An English language, Austrian film (that in and of itself is weird, right?) starring Patrick Swayze, it purports to tell the story of famed LIFE Magazine photographer Phillipe Halsman during the years before he came to America.

And quite a story it is, because in 1928, the Jewish Halsman was accused by Austrian officials of murdering his father while they were on an Alpine hike, was convicted, and served time in an Austrian prison until pardoned by the President of the country in 1931. Halsman maintained that his father, who had a heart condition, fell down a steep hill, hitting his head on a rock. The trial apparently had strong anti-Semitic overtones. Halsman never spoke about this matter publicly (or apparently, for that matter, to any extent privately) after he arrived in the United States.

So what is wrong with the movie. Let’s start with the obvious. First, the acting is by and large atrocious. Swayze, who made this movie before his cancer was diagnosed, was just awful in the role of Halsman’s lawyer, Richard Pressberger. Why he was so bad I am not sure. I don’t think I have seen very many of his films, so I can’t compare. And he was not the only actor whose presentation made your eyes roll in this one. Second, the script itself was as weak and cliche ridden as can be.

But such things may make for bad movies, and there are a lot of bad movies around. But “Jump” crosses the line because the movie is so inaccurate in so many ways, while purporting to be an accurate biopic. And this, you can’t forgive.

What am I talking about?

The film states that it is based on a true story, with only the sequencing of events changed (whatever that means). And, it is true that Halsman was convicted of patricide. But here is where the movie falls short.

1. The movie paints Halsman’s father as an overbearing tyrant, whose death Halsman thought about, although the movie makes it clear that Halsman was innocent of the crime committed. But, according to author Austin Ratner, who has done a lot of research on the trial and who knows Halsman family members, this simply was not the case. Max Halsman was not a tyrant. (It reminded me of the movie “Shine”, which purportedly told the story of mentally unbalanced Australian pianist David Helfgott by painting a similar picture of an impossibly overbearing father, also, according to Helfgott’s sister, a misleading portrait.)

2. The movie paints Halsman’s father as having a sexual relationship (for money) with a waitress in an Alpine Inn near the scene of the accident, certainly providing another reason to dislike the married Halsman. Apparently, this too was all made up for the script, and was not part of the case itself.

3. The story takes place in Austria. The accident occurred in the Tyrolian Alps, and the trial in Innsbruck. The Halsmans, however, were from Latvia, on vacation in Austria. This is not made clear. It appears from the film that Halsman’s sister Luba is a student, but that Phillipe himself is just a young, perhaps adolescent, man. In fact, Phillipe was a student of electrical engineering in Dresden at the time. Whether or not this is relevant to the plot I don’t know, but there was no hint that Halsman was a student, rather than just an awkward kid who didn’t really get along well with his father.

4. While the funeral of the father is not shown in the movie, the casket is. And the casket is, for some reason, placed in the center of a large cathedral. Why would this be, as they were Jewish (and Latvian)? The rabbi (looking like a young Hasid, with black hat, side curls, etc) talks to Halsman’s widow in the cathedral. Obviously, this would not have occurred.

5. The trial itself looks like an American trial. There is a single judge, there is a jury of eight men, there are two tables facing the judge, one for the prosecution and one for the defense. There are opening and closing statements, and the two attorneys examine and cross examine their witnesses. They also make objections as to “relevance” or “leading the witness”, which the judge rules on. I don’t know anything about Austrian trial procedures in 1928. Today, there apparently are 8 person juries for serious criminal offenses; it may have been the case then. But I don’t think that you would have had an inactive judge – most continental judges are active participants in the litigation, often asking more questions of witnesses than do the attorneys (and today, in Austria, there would probably be three judges, as there were in the recent incest case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter locked in the basement for over 20 years). And I can’t imagine that there would be objections to evidence in the manner of English or American common law proceedings.

6. The sentence is not discussed in the movie. In fact, it was ten years, but it was appealed, and overturned by the Supreme Court of the country. There was a second trial, there was a conviction on a lesser charge of manslaughter, and a new four year sentence imposed. About a year after that, Halsman was pardoned by the President and required to leave the country. In the movie, this was shorthanded: there was a guilty verdict, there was an (undefined but presumably long term) incarceration ordered, and there was a pardon. Nothing about the appeal, etc. Again, this may not be important to the story line, but in a movie which purports to portray accurately what really happened, this is not acceptable.

7. When Pressberger visits Halsman in prison and shows him the pardon, Halsman does not know if he will accept it (as if he had a choice: once one is pardoned, one is pardoned, I would assume) as it would look like he is admitting guilt. Pressberger tells him that the Nazis are coming and the Jews will be trapped (he must have been the only one who knew this in 1930 Austria), and that there is a job waiting for Halsman with Henry Luce in New York as a Life Magazine staff photographer, and that he should accept it and get on with his life. Again, I don’t know when Luce offered a job to Halsman, but when Halsman left Austria in 1930, he went to France, not the US, and he did not get here until sometime during the 1940s. There was no hint of this, either.

Apparently, the Halsman trial was well publicized and did foster anti-Semitic feelings, at least in the Tyrol. But the film didn’t show much in the way of anti-Semitism in the trial itself, except that Pressberger kept saying to the jury that all of this is happening only because the Halsmans were Jewish, and then he went into a variation of the famous Bonhoeffer line: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out…….” well before Bonhoeffer ever said it. But it showed Nazi parades in the streets: uniforms, marching bands, swastikas, placards, etc. Maybe I am wrong, and I know there were Nazi groups in Austria this early, but I would doubt that there were such large and organized demonstrations on such a regular basis in 1928.

I think you get my point. We have a bad movie here for two reasons: first because it is a bad movie, and second because it purports to be truth, when in fact it is fiction, fiction, fiction.


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