We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA.
From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard) proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: “I’m not a Jew.” David: “No, I am. I wasn’t ... accusing you.”) Like the predatory creature characterized in “Der Ewige Juden,” Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny “three five-pound notes” to drive her cello home safely out of the rain; “I’m a music lover,” he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.
David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods, deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: “Shvartzes,” he tells Jenny, “have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent from their own kind.” The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses the collective “we” to justify his wickedness: “This is how we are, Jenny,” Goldman editorializes. “We’re not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways, because if we weren’t, there would be no fun.” He uses the word “stats” for old ladies he victimizes. They “are scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies out and I buy their flats cheap.” Along with his partner, Danny, David barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious relics. “We have to be clever with maps,” he tells Jenny. An ancient map, he rationalizes, “shouldn’t spend its life on a wall…. We know how to look after it…. We liberated it.”
Is it possible that the film attempts to link the predatory Jew with his purloined Jewish homeland?
In his book “Anti-Semitic Stereotypes” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Frank Felsenstein explains that “stereotypes stress the difference between the dominant group and the other…. The ‘true born Englishman,’ is the ideal ‘counter-stereotype’ of the Jew. The wandering-Jew stereotypes were constantly invoked in anti-Semitic narratives to present the homeless Jews as living proof of God’s declared intention that these were once his chosen people and should not be granted respite until they recognized the true Messiah.”
In “An Education,” Jenny’s values, and those of her middle-class parents, teachers and first boyfriend, are antithetical to those of the crooked Jew. The Brits are refined, attractive, honest, sober and hard working. Boyfriend and classmate Graham, “a handsome boy,” according to the script, plays the violin, is modest and clean-cut and presents Jenny with the same plainly wrapped Latin dictionary for her birthday as her parents.
Miss Stubbs, an English teacher, encourages Jenny to pass her “A” levels and earn her way into Oxford in the same honest way she once got into Cambridge. Like Graham and Jenny, Miss Stubbs is “attractive,” “bright” and “animated.”
By contrast, writer Nick Hornby, who initiated the film project based on a woman’s personal essay that he changed to suit his themes, confesses that he feared “no conventional male lead would want to play the part of the predatory, amoral, lonely David.” David’s wife, Sarah, “a homely looking woman in her early 30s,” shows no surprise when her husband’s fiancée, Jenny, shows up at her door. As alien a creature as David may be, the dark, curly haired Jewess is accustomed to her man’s infidelities.
The climactic scene after David proposes, when Jenny, unaware of his treachery, informs her school’s headmistress that she plans to marry a Jew, is blatantly anti-Semitic:
Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”
Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”
Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”
The pretty girl makes no attempt to defend her fiancé’s human dignity, no effort to profess her love for him. As a depersonalized, demonized Jew, David has no qualities worth defending. Instead, Jenny suggests she prefers spending the Jew’s money over studying her Latin.
“My choice is to do something hard and boring or marry my Jew and go to Paris and Rome and ... eat in nice restaurants and have fun.”
The articulate headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, defends the native values that the rootless Jew tempted her student to abandon. “Nobody does anything worth doing without a degree,” she warns Jenny.
When a character like Emma Thompson makes blatant anti Semitic statements in a modern film, we expect that she will eventually be exposed for her ugly prejudices; in a coming of age story, especially, we expect that the education of the heroine would include her awakening to the falsehood of the racial slurs and stereotypes thrown at her by the corrupt adults in her world. In an Education, by contrast, it is Jenny who repents for her mistakes; After she discovers her fiancé is married, a remorseful Jenny returns to the Headmistress of her school. A weeping Mary Magdalene, Jenny is now “dressed soberly in clothes not unlike a school uniform.” This transformation, the screenwriter notes, “completes a circle.” The headmistress smiles, pleased at Jenny’s repentance and willingness to return to the wholesome Christian values with which she was raised. “I suppose you think I’m a ruined woman,” Jenny tells the Headmistress. “You’re not a woman,” the Headmistress kindly responds, “pleased with her line.” As movie blogger Joe Baltake points out, the film “seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson’s anti-Semitic outburst.” Baltake is one of a minority of critics to acknowledge the film’s anti-Semitism (many of the glowing reviews fail to even mention that Jenny’s seducer is Jewish, or that the word “Jew” appears in the film). A little more subtly, David Edelstein, of New York Magazine, writes, “The story’s most obvious lesson is: Beware of Jews bearing flowers….”
Despite the advertising campaign’s promise of a seduction film, there is nothing erotic about David. True to another ugly stereotype, Goldman turns out to be wimpy, “fruity,” “babyish” and disgusting. He calls Jenny “Minnie,” and wants her to call him “Boobaloo.”
Squeamish about the possible shedding of blood, he first tries to take Jenny’s virginity with a banana. “I thought we might get the messy bit over with first,” he tells her. “I don’t want to lose my virginity to a piece of fruit,” Jenny responds. The Jewish seducer of young gentile girls cannot be allowed to be seductive. As Felsenstein points out, “The bipolarity with which Jews are stereotyped is frequently impressive. They are bankers and capitalists; they are communists and agitators; they are tough and full of chutzpah; they look wretched and sickly….”
And what excuses does Nick Hornby provide for the “lying, malicious propaganda” in the screenplay he wrote, then championed and shepherded into production? How does he respond to the obvious question, Joe Baltake, along with other perplexed audience members, are forced to ask: “And why exactly did David have to be Jewish?”
Like Jenny, her parents, and her teachers, Elgar came from a working class background and was a self taught man. Like Jenny’s father, Jack, Elgar did not like to travel, and spent most of his life in the same part of England. David, who admits that the only university he ever attended was the “university of life,” has the audacity to put down the great British composer for his simple roots and low class “Brummy accent,” acquired from “spending too much time in Birmingham.” It is for the Birmingham Music Festival that Elgar composed and performed his oratorio, “The Apostles.” The most famous characters of this oratorio are Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, the two most memorable sinners, who repent for their sins. In the Betrayal section of the Oratorio, Elgar portrays Judas in agony when he confesses his guilt and despair at having betrayed Jesus. Jack, Jenny’s father, plays the role of Judas in “An Education.” Conned by David into believing that he has the wealth and connections that will guarantee his daughter a good life, Jack allows her to go away with her Jew, in the hope he will marry her. “You’re my father again, are you? What were you when you encouraged me to throw my life away?” Jenny reproaches him after her fall from grace. Like Judas in Elgar’s Apostles, Jack, in tears, fervently repents for his betrayal and asks Jenny for forgiveness: “I know I’ve made a mess of everything. … All my life I’ve been scared, and I didn’t want to be scared. And then along came David, and he knew famous writers, he knew how to get to classical music concerts. But he wasn’t who he said he was. He wasn’t who you said he was.” In The Apostles, Elgar tried to show that “Judas’ intention in betraying Jesus was not to bring about his death, but to force his hand – to compel him to show his power by saving himself so that the Jews would have to acknowledge him as King.” (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/classical/elgar/note).
Interestingly, in a new book about her story, Lynn Barber blames her parents, particularly her ambitious former actress mother, for pushing her into the arms of a rich middle aged man, named Simon. In a new essay written in August 2009 for Granta, Lynn Barber writes that only when reading the repentance scene in Nick Hornby’s script, did she finally find herself “weeping in sympathy for her father – a weird and possibly therapeutic moment in my life.”
Unlike Jenny and Jack, the recalcitrant David refuses to either weep or repent for his sins. In the “Appendix: Alternate Ending of ‘An Education,’ Goldman meets the reformed, makeup-less Jenny at Oxford, “in front of a church,” to “swelling orchestral music.” Having just been released from prison for the one hundred and ninety offenses he committed, Goldman tries to get Jenny back by promising to divorce his wife. “Don’t you understand what you did?” Jenny asks him. But David is incapable of repentance, and stubbornly clings to his shifty ways. “I can see my behavior must have been confusing… The important thing is that you’re still my Minnie Mouse, and I love you, and you had fun.” Clearly David is doomed to continue to wander in his unrepentant, parasitical state -- the Eternal Jew.
In her August Granta interview, Lynn Barber mentions several interesting changes Nick Hornby made in her story. The screenwriter “fleshed out characters who had been no more than names before and created whole scenes that were not in my story at all. The girl who used to be me became a cellist in the school orchestra, and bought a Burne Jones at auction, and went to a Walthow dog track none of which I did…” Edward Burne Jones, whose painting Danny buys at an auction for two hundred guineas, was a member of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of artists who rejected the Renaissance and wanted to return to the simple, honest Christianity of the middle ages – which also happened to be a time when England had been Judenrein because all Jews had been expelled from England. In 1858, Burne Jones decorated a cabinet with Chaucer’s famous Prioress Tale – the one anti-Semitic story in The Canterbury Tale about a boy whose throat was cut for singing a Christian song, but continued to sing it whenthe Virgin Mary placed grain in his mouth. The painting is full of flowers, particularly white lilies, which represent the boy’s purity. Like the innocent boy in Burne Jones’s painting, Jenny, whom David constantly besieges with flowers, is musically gifted. “Sing to us, Sing to us,” Danny begs Jenny, when she sits, surrounded by David and his co-conspirators, in the Oxford pub where David brings Jenny, after lying to her parents and convincing them to let him take her away for a weekend. Please don’t make me sing to you,” Jenny responds. Like the Jewish conspirators of The Prioress Tale, David and his gang cannot ultimately stop Jenny from singing. The film ends happily with Jenny passing her “A” levels, which gain her entry into Oxford – her version of Paradise.
Going to Sundance with “An Education,” is Nick Hornby’s version of paradise. In his preface to the screenplay, the former writer of young adult fiction confesses his excitement at beating the unbelievable odds against having a movie made; he then recounts how bored he was (just like Jenny, in her speech to the Headmistress) with his solitary novelist’s life, before he came across Lynn Barby’s project which led to the excitement of meetings, and the joys of having a screenplay turned into a movie; he continues to relate how much fun he had at Sundance going to parties with celebrities who gushed over his film. Like Jenny with David, with “An Education,” Nick Hornby has found “his Jew.”
The first time I went to see “An Education,” I walked out half way through – at the point when David began to editorialize about “this is how we do things.” My husband and our two friends, all American born Jews, were surprised at my reaction. They had never experienced anti-Semitism; they had never been labeled “the other,” they had never felt like strangers in an inhospitable culture. They had never seen a Nazi propaganda film. The wandering Jew stereotype was unfamiliar to them – and perhaps meaningless in America, a land of immigrants, pioneers and vagabonds.
By contrast, my close friend, Julia Ribak, also American born, but daughter of a Holocaust survivor, found “An Education” as deeply disturbing as I did. Watching the film, she remembered the stories her mother, Anna Wendruck, told her about the hateful images of Jews she grew up with in Hungary, before she was sent to Auschwitz. “Please see the movie from the beginning to end if you decide to write a critique,” Julia emailed me. “My mother, her large family, six million innocents could not escape the hatred that has been perpetuated against Jews through the ages. Nor could I, as I have gone through my life carrying the names of not one, but two victims of the Holocaust, my grandmother Julia, and my aunt Marianne (gassed to death in her adolescence). I have carried a huge rock on my shoulders throughout my life… the memory and pain of a cruel history. The movie is a magnificent and nasty creation of propaganda. The writer managed to include everything… everything that would make the viewer of the film walk away hating Jews!”
Dr. Irina Bragin is an English professor at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of “Subterranean Towers: A Father Daughter Story,” and the play, “Vine Tata: Daddy's Coming.”