The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch, Switzerland’s submission to the Academy awards and the Jewiest movie to hit Netflix in a long while, has a lot going for it. It has a superb cast of actors, led by Jewish cutie Joel Basman. It has great cinematography and that 4th-wall-breaking narration all the cool Netflix kids love.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, there’s no other way to say this — Motti is another trash film that aggrandizes men and their romantic pursuit at the expense of Jewish women.
This dumpster fire of a movie offers us only 2D caricatures of women in this year of our lord *checks notes* 5780, I mean 2019. If this movie had a smell, it would be mothballs, because this trope is as stale and old as something that was forgotten in your grandparents’ closet. It’s a worn Philip Roth novel, or a VCR version of Annie Hall wrapped in a bow of modern production values and pretending very hard to be something new. But it’s not.
Let’s back up and talk plot here. The movie is about Mordechai “Motti” Wolkenbruch, a handsome young student living in Zurich, Switzerland whose mom wants him to get married. Motti is part of an ultra-Orthodox family, wears tzitzit, goes to synagogue, and works for his family’s insurance business, which has Yiddish in its letterhead. He is deeply embedded in his community. He is capable and he is fairly good-looking but, sigh, his annoying Jewish mom wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl. Sounds familiar? If this movie were food, it would be Donald Trump’s steak, because this trope is just so, so overdone.
But wait, there’s a twist! Motti, an economics student, is in love with his classmate — a shiksa (the movie’s word, not mine). Why is he in love with her? Well, she’s hot, I guess. In the entire hour and a half movie, all we find out about her is that:
1. Her favorite alcoholic drink is a gin & tonic.
2. She likes to party.
3. She lives in a cool flat.
4. She works at a music club.
5. She’s hot.
So, yeah, he’s in love with her.
Motti seems doomed to a life of failed shidduchs (Jewish matchmaking meetings) from his borderline anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish mother (more on that in a bit) when he gets into a car accident that break his glasses.
Instead of getting a new pair at the regular Jewish optician tradition dictates he buys from, he decides to get a pair of fancy Warby Parker-esque frames from the goyish optical store, where the salesman also suggests a beard trim. Turns out, in true She’s All That fashion, all Motti needed was a change of optical accessory and a new ‘do to turn his life around.
New-glasses-Motti is so hot he practically gets a boner for himself when he sees his reflection with his new frames for the first time. It’s an eloquent reminder that this movie is purely masturbatory, that it’s the Motti show and all the women in it are just accessories — just like his new pair of spectacles.
You might think I’m exaggerating. But let me explore all the female tropes… I mean, the female characters in this movie.
First, as mentioned above, and also in the original title of the movie — Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa (which is also the title of the 2012 novel by Swiss-Jewish author Thomas Meyer this movie is based on) — there is the shiksa, an honestly quite cringe-worthy term that I prefer to never hear from a Jew, or non-Jewish person, ever again. Her name is Laura, and as mentioned above, she doesn’t get a moment to really tell us about herself. She does seem interested in Motti and in Jewish culture. She is fun-loving, but doesn’t quite fall into a trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is one small favor we can be grateful for, I guess.
Still, one terrible scene in which Motti grossly compares her tuches (that’s Yiddish for hindquarters) with his mother’s (honestly, the psychology of this moment is too disgustingly on the nose for me to discuss) leaves no doubt — she is first and foremost an object of his lust.
In direct contrast with said non-Jewish woman, there’s the Very Jewish Women that Motti’s mother tries to set him up with. They’re geeky, conventionally unattractive, schlubby, and wearing unfashionable layers of clothing. They make cookies that he politely spits into napkins. They push their glasses up the bridge of their nose. They have poor posture.
One of these women, Michal, played by the very lovely Lena Kalisch, is at least portrayed as quasi-human. In fact, Motti pretends to his family that he is into her, just to get a break from the onslaught of matches. Still, he does not consider her as an actual romantic interest for even one second, so we are led to believe that she’s simply too Jew-y for him. Ew.
Perhaps one of the grossest stereotypes comes in the form of Yael. When Motti’s desperate mother finds that he tried to trick her into believing he was going to marry Michal, she sends him to Israel to find a bride. Motti ends up in a ridiculous Jewish meditation center (it’s called Ohm Shalom) where he meets Yael. After they get drunk together, Yael, a sexy prop, is used to rid Motti of his virginity. She calls him a “ziyun” — a lay, a screw, a shag — but honestly, that is all she is in this movie, a lustful, irreligious caricature of Israeli secular women, and an offensive one at that. So in case you thought this movie spared offending secular Jews, don’t worry! It’s offensive to Orthodox and secular Jews alike! Equality!
And then, yes, there’s Motti’s Jewish mom. Schlubby (because there’s no way religious women can be beautiful, amirite?!) and overbearing, there’s not a hint that she has any aspirations aside from cooking and marrying her son through various schemes. She’s obsessive and somewhat unhinged about said aspirations. In contrast, there’s Motti’s father: sweet, lovable, thoroughly human. Sexism! It’s what’s for Shabbat dinner.
(There’s also a rich, dying Jewish widow who uses tarot cards to tell Motti about his future. She is Jewish, she is witchy, she is fabulous, she keeps smoking even though she’s dying from lung cancer. I’m into the idea of this character. But also, her role in the movie is basically a human astrology.com? So again, a very cool accessory to Motti disguised as a human.)
To be clear, I do not blame these problematic characters on the actresses themselves, who are incredibly talented. Especially the fabulous Inge Maux, who plays Motti’s mom with great fervor and seems to have a lot of passion for Yiddish, Judaism, and the new motherly feelings she has for Joel Basman (honestly, he is adorable). Just watch this darling video of her talking about this part and her love for her chihuahuas:
But the movie seems to deride both Judaism and women in equal measure, making it a bit hard to watch as someone who is both female and Jewish. Unlike shows like Shtisel and movies like those of Rama Burshtein, which show the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community as thoroughly human and invite viewers in, you can’t help but feel like the ultra-Orthodox Jews in this film are, at best, a fun curiosity, and, at worst, the butt of a bad joke.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think — what a waste! A waste of excellent acting. A waste of enrapturing cinematography. And a waste of lovely prop gefilte fish.
It seems Motti and this movie’s writers still have a lot of “awakening” to do.