2010, NR, 116 min. Directed by Gaylen Ross.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 7, 2010
Director Ross began her career as an actress – she survived George Romero's Dawn of the Dead – and she appears to have developed a taste for being in front of the camera. How else to explain Ross' decision to insert herself into her documentary about Rudolf Israel Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann for the release of 1,700 Jews. At first Ross' presence in front of the camera is baffling – did she know Kasztner? – and then deeply grating, distracting the viewer with questions such as: Why is she staring ponderously into the distance? Why the overwrought, first-person voiceover? Why is she making this personal? I suspect Ross' answer would be that after eight years traveling the world, amassing interviews, and becoming intimates of both Kasztner's surviving family and his assassin, it is personal. I also suspect that if you asked any independent filmmaker laboring for years and with limited resources, he or she will tell you that every project is a passion project. Certainly, Ross is working with fascinating material. Kasztner, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Schindler, is a controversial if scantly remembered figure in Jewish history, alternately celebrated as a savior and vilified as a collaborator. As a leader of the Vaada, an aid and rescue organization, Kasztner bribed Eichmann and other Nazi officers for the transport of 1,684 Jews out of Hungary, at a time when 12,000 Jews a day were being deported to Auschwitz. (Ross wincingly literailzes the idea that time is running out by superimposing a clock’s face on the screen and top-heavying the sound mix with the ticking of a clock.) Eichmann's initial proposal was to exchange the lives of 1 million Jews for 10,000 Allied trucks. The eventual deal struck between the men amounted to $1,000 per head, which Kasztner and other members of Vaada raised from the resources of 150 wealthy Jews (guaranteeing them a seat on the train and enabling the safe passage of hundreds more, including orphaned children). The train left Budapest in June 1944, but it was rerouted and held hostage at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp while Eichmann tried, and failed, to extract more funds. Eventually, all the passengers of the so-called "Kasztner train" made it safely to Switzerland, and Kasztner emigrated to Israel, where he was welcomed as a hero and then rejected as a Nazi collaborator who had "sold his soul to the devil." After his assassination by right-wing extremists in 1957, Kasztner's role as the rescuer of 1,700 Jews was more or less rubbed out of the history books, and many of those Jews have felt ostracized by the community for being "second-class survivors." As I said, fascinating material, and the film is notable for its close access to Kasztner's daughter, Zsuzsi, and her daughters, who work to rehabilitate Kasztner's image, and to convicted killer Ze’ev Eckstein, who floats a conspiracy theory late in the game that rivals any yahoo "second-gunman" speculation. But there are deeply complex issues afoot here – most especially the question of how a country and a people decides who will be its heroes – and this amateurish film, with its tabloid-TV zooms and hokey visual metaphors, simply isn't up to such complexity. (Director Ross will be in attendance for Q&As after the 12:50pm, 4pm, and 7:05pm shows on Friday and Saturday and the 12:50pm show on Sunday. She will also introduce the 4pm show.)