Sunday, May 28, 2017

Blood Libel

Film: The Fixer
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I have sat here looking at the base template for my reviews for a good 10 minutes before I typed in anything beyond the why/why not, the tags, and the titles. I honestly don’t know what to say about The Fixer other that it seems like John Frankenheimer found a book based on a real-life case that seems to have been ripped straight out of the mind of Franz Kafka. Going through Oscar movies means spending a great deal of time dealing with the Holocaust, something I’ve complained about before. In this case, we’re not talking about that, but we are absolutely balls-deep in discussing the persecution of the Jews. It seems endlessly fascinating and horrifying to me that we live in a world were a century ago crimes like blood libel and host desecration were taken seriously.

I should probably explain what those two things are, since they are so spectacularly bizarre that I have trouble wrapping my mind around them. Host desecration is easy to figure out once you realize that the host in this case is blessed communion wafers and not someone holding a party. Since in Catholic belief the pasty wafers become the literal body of Christ once they have been blessed, someone doing anything to a blessed wafer is essentially committing a crime against the bodily person of Christ himself. Blood libel is even more staggering. There was a common thought that when the Jews celebrated Passover, they baked their matzos with the blood of Christian children. Because of this, plenty of Jews were accused, tried, sentenced, and punished for the murder of children.

That’s the world we’re dealing with here. The Fixer takes place in pre-World War I Russia, mainly in Kiev which is called the most anti-Semitic city in the country several times in the film. We’re under the rule of Czar Nicholas II, and the war is coming, but we’re not going to get a lot of that here. Instead, we’ll be spending time with Yakov Bok (Alan Bates), who cuts off his forelocks and shaves his beard as the film begins. Yakov doesn’t want to look Jewish, after all. As someone who can pass for a non-Jew, he is free to leave the ghetto and look for work as a fixer, what we would probably call a contractor today.

He does eventually find work after rescuing a man lying drunk in the streets. The man hires him to do some work around the house and Yakov becomes the object of attention for Zinaida (Elizabeth Harman), the man’s daughter. It’s soon evident that behind her prim exterior that Zinaida enjoys sex quite a bit and invites Yakov to her room. He’s about to go through with things (despite his being circumcised giving him away as a Jew) when he balks. When his secret is discovered later, Zinaida accuses him of attempted rape.

This is a key moment because it allows Yakov the knowledge that he has both a potential friend and an enemy in what lies ahead. His friend is Bibikov (Dirk Bogarde), who seems to see through most of what is happening to Yakov and is able to determine how much of it comes down to anti-Semitism. His main foil is Grubeshov (Ian Holm), who seems determined to convict Yakov of something. This is where the blood libel comes in. A murdered child has turned up, and through a series of coincidences, Yakov is accused of murdering the boy and using his blood in the traditional Passover matzo. The irony here is that up to this point, Yakov has stated on multiple occasions that he is not political and not particularly religious.

What follows is what you expect—torture, degradation, and humiliation at the hands of his captors. The Russians in authority want him to confess, telling him that things will be easier on him if he just admits to the crime for which he has been accused. Yakov refuses, unwilling to admit to a crime that he didn’t commit. When he is finally offered amnesty by Count Odoevsky (David Warner), he refuses, demanding a trial and the chance to demonstrate his lack of guilt.

There is a great deal to appreciate with The Fixer, not the least of which being the solid performances from just about everyone in the cast. Bates heads this team, of course, and he’s completely believable in the role. Dirk Bogarde and Ian Holm are also as good as they typically are, and it’s fun seeing David Warner looking this young.

I have trouble, though, seeing this as a theatrical release. It feels almost as if this should have been a television movie, probably something on PBS and brought to you by endowments from several companies. Aside from the solid production values, it has that sort of Masterpiece Theater quality to it. Since the film is based on a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner of the same name (by Bernard Malamud), that sort of treatment wouldn’t be out of bounds.

What it really comes down to, though, is how much time you want to spend watching people abuse Alan Bates. It quickly becomes too much and unpleasant to watch. Because of this, The Fixer ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The story is good and important. The roles are well-handled and interesting. The writing (a Dalton Trumbo screenplay, no less) is of the highest quality. It’s beautifully directed. So why does it feel like a chore to make it all the way through?

Why to watch The Fixer: A great cast headed by Alan Bates.
Why not to watch: I expected an introduction by Alastair Cooke.


  1. Despite my great admiration for Alan Bates, as well as the rest of that amazing cast, I have never had any burning desire to return to this after watching it initially for just the reasons you mentioned.

    If I'm looking for a Bates fix I'm much more inclined to watch Far From the Madding Crowd, Return of the Soldier, The Running Man or pretty much any of the rest of his work first, which is a shame since he's brilliant in this but it's so grim. Incredible that this was his only Oscar nomination.

    1. I tend to like Bates as well, and wish I could find Women in Love. I agree that he deserved more acclaim. I'm not sure why he seems to be as little known as he is.

      As for The Fixer, I don't think I'll watch it again.