“Regina” Uses Archival Footage to Document the Life of a German Female Rabbi from WWII

Director Diana Groo and Executive Producer George Weisz in conversation with WJFF Director Ilya Tovbis / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

On Thursday, March 6, I attended the screening of the documentary, “Regina” at AFI Silver Theatre as part of the 24th Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival. Director Diana Groo and Executive Producer George Weisz were on hand to answer some questions after the event.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this evocative, heavily-packed one-hour film is the use of archival footage to tell the story. When it came to Regina Jonas (1902-1944) herself, Groo only had one surviving photograph for visual purposes. Over the course of several years, she found footage from early 20th century Berlin that fit the storyline she created with Regina’s personal papers and testimony from survivors who knew her. These survivors had passed on by the time the movie was made, so the film never broke away from historical clips.

Much of the footage featured a young woman in appropriate settings, and with the addition of period music and other audio components to cover the largely silent movie clips, I could suspend my disbelief to at least acknowledge that this could be Regina’s life. Maybe I’m biased by my library/archives background, but what an awesome, creative use of primary source material. Groo’s hard work certainly paid off.

Regina Jonas was born Orthodox in Berlin before the accepted ordination of female rabbis, even in the “reformed” movement that was gaining traction in Europe and the Americas. But her father encouraged her to study, and she came to believe that nothing in tradition barred women from holding the title. In the ‘20s she attended a liberal college for Jewish studies, and after fighting years of backlash, she was ordained as a rabbi and ultimately even allowed to preach from the pulpit as the rise of the Third Reich forced Jews, and many male rabbis, out of Germany. She herself was ultimately killed at Auschwitz, but the film made certain not to focus on the Shoah directly, but on “Rabbi Miss Regina Jonas’s” unique influence on the Jewish world.

Weisz was able to recruit his daughter, popular Hollywood actress Rachel Weiscz, to read from Regina’s rabbinical thesis and sermons, which stressed modesty, faith, and dedication to the less fortunate. Groo recruited her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor living in Hungary, to read excerpts from the survivor testimonies. There’s also a version in Hungarian, where the film opened last year before winning the Lia Award for Jewish Experience at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival. Groo and Weisz recently signed a contract for wider U.S. distribution of the movie, as well as a DVD in the future; I’m definitely keeping an eye out for it!

The Washington Jewish Film Festival ends tomorrow. Click here for the remaining schedule. Check out my previous WJFF coverage of “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” “Love During Wartime,” “Judios en el espacio” and “La Cámera Obscura.”