In Israel, childhood ends when you get married, or so Yishai Orian informs us at the outset of his charming shaggy-dog story of a movie.
But after six years of marriage, with his wife about to give birth to their first child, there’s some question whether the pony-tailed filmmaker has actually grown up.
The physical manifestation of his extended adolescence is the prized four-wheeled possession that gives “The Beetle” its name. Dating from the early ‘60s and seemingly on its last legs, the little yellow car with the mismatched red hood screams a lot of things, none of them “adult.”
“The Beetle” airs July 5 on PBS’ “Global Visions.”
This utterly engaging and frequently poignant first-person documentary departs from the norm in a couple of interesting ways. The wiry, bespectacled Orian is anything but handsome, and his nerdy appearance combined with a figuring-it-out-on-the-fly approach to life encourages the viewer to underestimate him. Although he doesn’t go so far as to play a clown or a fool, Orian is the one character called on to endure a series of minor ignominies and indignities. We pick up the faintest whiff of Woody Allen in Orian’s performance, not least when he proves himself to be tougher and stronger than we expected.
My use of the word “performance” may have alerted you to the other element that distinguishes “The Beetle” from the usual first-person documentary. Orian has a natural screen presence but he rarely seems surprised or spontaneous. Controlled and calculated is more like it, even though he goes to some lengths to make us think otherwise.
This subtle subterfuge does not detract from our enjoyment of “The Beetle,” mostly because it is part and parcel of the film’s occasionally surreal blend of real life and staged scenes. Early in the movie, for example, three different angles—including a camera affixed to the hood of the car and pointed at its occupants—are employed to record a supposedly impromptu argument between Orian and his wife Eliraz while he drives her to work in the Beetle.
A lot of time, effort and money were expended on that scene, especially compared to the standard approach of jamming a guy with a camcorder in the back seat. Orian doesn’t seem motivated by the desire to trick us—he provides plenty of sly hints and reminders throughout the film that what we’re witnessing is, in a sense, too good to be true—so much as the pleasure and possibility of employing the gear, grammar and structure of fiction films.
The last Beetle was produced in 2003, but Orian is more concerned with Volkswagen’s earlier models. The original concept of an inexpensive German auto for the masses sprang from Hitler’s brain in the 1920s, with the first Beetles rolling out in the late ‘30s. Only a few hundred were made, however, before Hitler invaded Poland and German automotive factories were dedicated to producing military vehicles instead.
Seemingly resigned to selling his beloved Beetle and getting a family sedan, Orian first decides to visit as many of the car’s previous owners as he can locate. These meetings provide the film’s most powerful vignettes, laced as they are with mysterious, ephemeral and ineffably profound moments of human experience.
So as not to diminish your pleasure at encountering these scenes for yourself, I’ll only recount the story of the car’s first owner. In one of those odd, forgotten footnotes to history, Germany shipped several thousand Beetles to Israel in the 1960s as part of its reparations for war crimes. To forestall any potential objections, Germany declared the cars were actually made in Belgium, a claim backed by documentation and the Israeli government.
The original owner of Orian’s Beetle boycotted German goods, his surviving son relates. When he discovered that he had, in fact, purchased a German car and not a Belgian one—with his government in on the charade—he not only sold the vehicle but emigrated in disgust to the United States.
That’s pretty much the extent of the film’s domestic political content, incidentally. The other insight to be gleaned from the filmmaker’s encounters with other ex-owners is how small Israel is, and how everyone is connected.
Stubborn and reluctant to part with his Beetle, Orian embraces a long shot, last-chance plan that requires a trip to Jordan. (It’s fortunate, both for the director and his film, that he speaks Arabic. It’s such a stroke of luck, in fact, that we’re a little skeptical. By this point in the proceedings, though, we’re so invested in the eventual resolution of the car that we go along for the ride, pun intended.)
This picaresque adventure consumes a substantial chunk of the movie and plays out as Eliraz gets closer and closer to giving birth. (Again, if we can believe events as presented.) Given the recent conflagration between Israel and Hamas, the Jordan section will play as either reassuring or cold comfort depending on the degree to which you have allowed yourself to surrender to Orian’s charm and fancy.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if Orian’s entire escapade with his car was a set-up, a yarn staged for the sake of the film. It is a tribute to his spirit of playfulness that I wouldn’t be annoyed, either.
“The Beetle” is one of those endearing films that present itself as a comedy but turns out to have more on its mind than easy laughs. There are times when Orian pushes his conceit a tad too far, and comes dangerously close to preciousness, but it will be the hard-hearted moviegoer who isn’t seduced by his camaraderie and heart.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.