KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the new documentary Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis"
Related Story: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis
KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: “Killing Kasztner”
By Beth Accomando
Air date: January 22, 2010
Hollywood has often turned to familiar stories about the Holocaust but the documentary “Killing Kasztner” looks to a forgotten chapter of history. KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando has this review.
KASZTNER(ba).wav SOQ 3:50 (music out )
(Tag:) “Killing Kasztner” opens today (Friday) at the Reading [pronounced Redding] Gaslamp Stadium Theaters. You can find more of Beth’s reviews online at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.
If you haven’t heard of Israel Kasztner you’re not alone. But you might be surprised to learn that the man sometimes referred to as the “Jewish Schindler” saved 1700 Jews from the gas chambers and was tried after the war as a collaborator in his adopted country of Israel. The trial and the guilty verdict divided the country and branded him as a "man who sold his soul to the devil." Kasztner’s life is full of contradictions, controversy, and ambiguity, which is why it’s such fascinating material.
Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in order to get a train from Budapest to Switzerland to save nearly two thousand Jews – including Kasztner’s own family. So how did he go from a hero to a traitor assassinated by a Jewish right wing extremist in Tel Aviv in 1957? That’s the story director Gaylen Ross wants to uncover in her documentary “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis.”
One person with a very strong opinion about this is Kasztner’s granddaughter Merav.
CLIP: Merav: He was not a victim. The victimization happened here…
But his granddaughter as well as his daughter Susi have been working to clear his name and re-establish him as a hero. At one point Susi confronts the family running a Holocaust museum in Israel about not highlighting her father’s accomplishments.
CLIP Susi: At least he should be singled out here…
Then the granddaughter tries to calm Susi’a anger.
CLIP Merav: The mother said you have to feed by the spoon…
Filmmaker Gaylen Ross tries to create a complex picture of Kasztner and the turbulent politics that led to his trial. She shows how most of the survivors of Kasztner’s rescued Jews view him as a savior. Yet some feel guilt over being saved while m perished. And then there are critics that question how Kasztner can be a hero when his deal with Eichmann gave the enemy the means to transport thousands of other Jews to concentration camps and their deaths. They question if Kasztner was motivated by good intentions or by selfish ambition since he saved his own family, friends, and members of the Hungarian intelligensia.
Ross is in pursuit of the truth as well as her own agenda to come to Israel to find a hero of the Holocaust. But the truth is not always an easy thing to uncover as she discovers in her interviews with Kasztner’s assassin Ze’ev Eckstein.
CLIP Eckstein: I have an agreement with myself to tell the truth but I didn’t promise all the truth…
Ross even brings the killer and Kasztner’s surviving family members together for a confrontation.
CLIP Eckstein: It was not against Dr. Kasztner but against what he symbolized for me… evil… are you sure you want to get into it?
Susi: Yes quite sure.
Interview footage like this proves compelling but too often Ross serves up a cold litany of facts that’s far less interesting. “Killing Kasztner” arrives after a pair of brilliant documentaries recently showed us how to construct a non-fiction narrative with the riveting tension of a thriller. Last year both “The Cove” and “Burma VJ” served up documentaries that were anything but talking heads. “Killing Kasztner” has a fascinating subjecty but often gets bogged down in dull exposition.
The film also arrives on the heels of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy “Inglorious Basterds,” which gave us Nazi killing Jews that we could cheer on but never really call heroes. It’s that sense of a moral gray zone that Ross doesn’t fully explore. She includes multiple perspectives but she never really gets into the moral complexities underlying her investigation. Her film ends up as more of a repetitious back and forth between Kasztner’s defenders and detractors. But the truth is that the notion of who’s a hero and who’s a traitor is not always as clear cut as we might like. So Ross’ film lacks the depth and moral inquisition of such documentaries as “Night and Fog” and “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
But Ross is to be commended for pulling this chapter of history out from obscurity and focusing our attention on a fascinating and complex man.
For KPBS, I’m Beth Accomando.