Shanghai Ghetto begins with an overture on the rise of Nazism, as recalled by those who were there, and annotated by a few historians. While the horror hasn’t faded, exactly, this is well-worn documentary territory, and suffers the ironically attenuating effect of familiarity. We know where this seems to be going, and only hope that the trip will be worthwhile, that some new insight or solace will be our reward. In that regard, the film’s success will depend on how steeped its viewers are in Holocaust history, and how much more they can take.
Filmmakers Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann stay their course, methodically assembling this story’s unusual hook: the immigration loophole that in the late 1930s allowed 20,000 Jewish refugees, then unwelcome in a host of Western nations (the Evian Conference of 1938 locked the gates to several countries, including the United States), to settle in a stricken quarter of Shanghai. It might seem like an unlikely option, but by then, the city was relatively wide open; its ports were heavily trafficked with European business interests, its French and British territories firmly entrenched since the wake of the 19th-century Opium Wars, and its immigration policies unusually lax. Refugees could disembark in Shanghai without visas or any official identification.
The city wasn’t ready for them, and neither were they for it. The film’s interviewees vividly remember the oddity and exoticism of the place, and the ubiquitous poverty into which they were plunged. But plight was relative—for a time, these dispossessed were notably better off than their Chinese neighbors, to say nothing of their European brethren. “So they concentrated on life in Shanghai,” explains the historian David Kranzler, who wrote a book about the Shanghai refugees, “and lo and behold, after the war they found out they were living in paradise compared to what happened… in Europe.”
The war, and by extension the Japanese (who’d occupied Shanghai since 1937), worsened the refugees’ lot, but not, it’s heartening to learn, their cultural tenacity. Small businesses, Jewish newspapers, and arts organizations somehow managed to sprout from the city’s barren, narrow alleys.
This story surely provides enough fertile ground for a documentary. Still, there’s nothing particularly innovative in the film’s technique. It’s the standard pastiche of newsreel and contemporary footage, stills, and interviews, fastidiously edited and subtly scored, narrated with discreet gravitas by Martin Landau. What’s more, Shanghai Ghetto‘s claim on its territory is not the first. In 1998, Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy made The Port of Last Resort, an Australian documentary on the same subject.
Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann don’t seem worried about reinventing this wheel, and their composure is an asset. It’s true that most of this tale is told by talking heads, but really, what other cinematic trickery can match the personal expressiveness of the human face? As the interviewed survivors choke up or fix a gaze into their distant but undimmed memories, there’s no need to cut away to some dramatic rendering of what they remember; the filmmakers trust the power of their primary sources. The place itself remains one of these sources. Remarkably, it had changed very little by 2000, when the filmmakers, with a pair of their interviewees, snuck into China and clandestinely shot digital footage of the ghetto without permission from the government.
And their efforts, even the most jaded viewer would probably agree, have yielded compelling results. Our good faith is rewarded. With help from the eloquence of some forthright survivors, including the father of one of the filmmakers, a potentially prosaic documentary manages fresh insight. Shanghai Ghetto weaves a sturdy braid of poignancy, curiosity, and triumph; Holocaust history, through which untrodden paths still apparently exist, is neither so ancient after all, nor so geographically contained as it had seemed.