Jewish Fantasy Films: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


I am tempted to re-title this film "Fantastic Jews and Where to Find Them," as three of the film's four main characters are Jewish. Well, ostensibly Jewish -- they don't explicitly reference Judaism, neither do they participate in Jewish religious life in any way. But there are sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski and they inhabit New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, so if they are not Jewish, they are confusing everyone they meet.

(Most tellingly, there is some indication the film is set at Christmas, including Christmas decorations, which none of the main characters seem to have any interest in. The characters even visit Macy's and do no Christmas shopping whatsoever, which seems like a violation of a very basic rule of seasonal filmmaking.)

There are Jews in the cast as well: Kowalski is played by Dan Fogler, and the cast is rounded out by Ezra Miller as a religious boy in a haircut that seems lifted from "The Golem," Ron Perlman as a speakeasy owner who also happens to be a goblin, and Zoë Kravitz as a girl in a photograph -- presumably she will be more important in later chapters.

Screenwriter J.K. Rowling has been vague about her characters' ethnicity -- she generally is, and when she isn't, as when she wrote about Native Americans in her "History of Magic in North America," she can be more than a little tone deaf. So perhaps it is best that she did little more than give characters Jewish names and plop them in a Jewish setting. We can write our own fan fiction about Jacob Kowalski's nights at the Yiddish theater or Queenie Goldstein encountering Illinois' Flapper Ghost in the Jewish Waldheim Cemetery.

But it does not feel unmeaningful that these characters are Jewish. Rowling has said that she was partially inspired by the rise of European populism, and so here we are, watching a film set in the years just following Hitler's release from prison and re-founding of the Nazi Party, in the era of the rebirth of the KKK in the United States.

It's tempting to try to make all of this film's witches and wizards into surrogate Jews. After all, it seems like every single wizard and witch in New York works for a Judenrat-style ministry, designed to enforce rules that push for invisibility and assimilation -- without this, the film's wizards fear genocide at the hands of humans.  There is a character in this film who has been suppressing their magical ability, adopted by a fundamentalist who seeks to exterminate witches. This character has been driven mad by doing so, becoming literally homicidal, which is about as forceful an argument against assimilation as I have ever seen onscreen.

But Rowling's story offers an inexact parallel. This story is a prequel, of sorts, to the Harry Potter films, and follows the rise of a character named Gellert Grindelwald, who appeared briefly in the world of Harry Potter but had a rather complicated backstory. Here played by Johnny Depp, Gellert Grindelwald is to lead a revolution in which wizards reject their secrecy in favor of creating a dictatorship in which magic users have power over non-magic users.

It's been broadly hinted that this storyline will be the one to parallel the rise of European populism, and so Rowling has set her movie's fascism, not among the fearful and murderous masses of humanity, but rather among a despised and hunted minority. This complicates the story considerably, as were this an exact parallel to historic Nazism, it would be like telling a story where the Nazis rose out of the Jewish community, or where it an exact parallel to modern populism, it would be wound in which an anti-immigrant ultra-nationalist movement rose out of Europe's Muslim population.

So the metaphor breaks down fairly quickly. But Rowling's stories have always been about a parallel world of magic that rarely touches the one we inhabit, and so it makes sense that her parallel fascism should play out in that world, rather than ours. Especially as it is abundantly obvious that if there were to be a war between humans and wizards, it is likely that it is humans who would experience genocide at the hands of wizards, and not vice versa. These characters are just too powerful to be credible victims to humans -- in this film, one angry child very nearly levels a city.

Setting this story in the world of magic also allows Rowling to do something she does very well, which is create a sort of fantastical diorama, free of complicated historical phenomenon, in which she can create essentially a shadow puppet show for the world's ills. In the Harry Potter books, she set most of a titanic struggle for world control at a remote boarding school, which gave a sprawling story unusual clarity and focus.

Here she is playing with a larger canvas -- instead of setting her tale at Hogwarts, here it is set in the entirety of 1920s New York. But she still focuses the story on a small group of heroes, led here by Eddie Redmayne as a sort of magical naturalist. (Redmayne provides a performance that is both unforced and extraordinarily eccentric, and carries a briefcase improbably stuffed with the film's titular fantastic beasts.) And by setting it in the world of magic, she can avoid the messy historical details that lead to totalitarianism, including nationalism, state controlled corporations, and despised migrant populations, and instead focus on a less messy magical version: Wizards are powerful and unfairly despised, therefore wizards should be in charge.

It remains to be seen what it means to simplify fascism like this for the sake of storytelling, or what it will be like including Jewish characters in such a story. I just don't know. Rowling has a canny way of slipping little details into her stories that re-complicate them, and sometimes complicated stories benefit from this sort of abstraction. Fascism is not a simple subject, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the complications.

I will take one moment to explore one small detail of the film, and how it deepens the storytelling. I don't think it is accidental that Rowling named her flapper character Queenie, but I can think of only two possible previous examples. Both are interesting.

The first is an obvious one, for anyone familiar with the history of American musicals: Queenie, the cook on the Cotton Blossom show boar in the musical "Show Boat." She is a black character, but the original book was authored by a Jew, Edna Ferber, and adapted into a musical by a Jew, Jerome Kern, as well as by Oscar Hammerstein II, who had a Jewish father. The musical explicitly deals with the problems of enforced segregation.

The second example is a stranger one: Queenie is the flapper protagonist of Joseph Moncure March's jazz age poem "The Wild Party," which is mostly a profile of artistic decadence. Although Queenie herself is not Jewish in the poem, a variety of the characters who surround her is -- some caricatured to the extent that March rewrote sections for a later release, finding them to be antisemitic. One of the stage adaptations of this poem expands on one of these characters, Gold, a theatrical producer, desperate to change the name of his partner, Goldberg, to something less obviously Jewish: Golden.

So just by exploring a character's name, we find rich associations, including segregation, antisemitism, and assimilation, all themes in "Fantastic Beasts." Like Redmayne's briefcase, the film proves to be overstuffed; it may take a long time to unpack.