For the first installment in his “Work” series of documentaries, filmmaker Daniel Kraus followed a small-town sheriff; for the second, he covered jazz musician Ken Vandermark. The third installment of “Work” is called Professor, and it’s about Rabbi Jay Holstein, a member of the University Of Iowa faculty who teaches courses on Judaism, the Holocaust, and “The Quest For Human Destiny.” Holstein is pushing 70, but looks like he’s in his early 50s. He teaches in the campus’s biggest lecture halls, and has a pedagogical style halfway between a stand-up comic and a drill sergeant—complete with liberal use of the word “fuck.” He runs 10 miles a day, dresses in athletic gear, and has a deal with the university that allows him to skip the academic conferences and paper-publishing that make up a large percentage of most professors’ lives. Rabbi Holstein just wants to spend his days and nights—even in the summer—standing in front of large groups of young people of varying intellect and interests, to get them thinking about the big questions that define our existence.
Like Kraus’ other “Work” films, Professor is short and unassuming. There are no talking-head interviews, and no contextual material outside of some lyrical establishing shots of well-manicured UI lawns. Kraus just shows Holstein holding court in the classroom, in his office, and at home. Professor has an electrifying subject in Holstein, who fits perfectly into the overarching theme of “Work,” a series designed to consider how our jobs can be both a calling and a grind. On the surface, Holstein is largely unsentimental about what he does; his first lecture of one course begins with a confession that he’s going to do his best to keep the class reasonably entertained for the 15 or so minutes each hour when their attention isn’t wandering. And Kraus is equally unsentimental in his presentation, showing Holstein talking and talking right up to Professor’s beautiful final scene, in which the soundtrack fills with the sound of scooting chairs as kids shoulder their enormous packs and file out.
Yet Kraus also finds a commonality in Holstein’s constant chatter that helps explain why the man loves his job. When Holstein has an honest discussion about sexuality with a Catholic kid who’d been considering the priesthood, or when he tells two students who want him to officiate their wedding that he’ll do it so long as the name “Jesus” isn’t uttered in the ceremony, Holstein is carrying out his mission to get people in the heartland to consider Judaism “as an entity unto itself, and not as a conduit to Christianity.” His ultimate goal is to make the world safer for the next generations of Jews, and though he worries that he’s failed because of his brusqueness, he tries to maintain perspective. What makes Rabbi Holstein an ideal subject for Kraus is that he trudges on, day after day, making incremental progress, always trying to remember that “the plan of the biblical God takes centuries to unfold.”
Key features: Half an hour of extra footage.
Available from workseries.com.