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Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis

New Doc Tells a Less Familiar Story of the Holocaust

Credit: GR Films

Above: "Killing Kasztner"


KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the new documentary Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis"


Hollywood has often turned to familiar stories about the Holocaust but the documentary “Killing Kasztner: The Jew ” (opening January 22 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters) looks to a forgotten chapter of history.

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, a Hungarian Jew, negotiated face to face 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. She says that unlike many Jewish families her family's story of the Holocaust is not one of victimization.

Merav: "He was not a victim. The victimization happened here in Israel. So what does it mean for the rest of the Jews if some could actually do something. This is a complexity that I don't think the state of Israel, definitely not back then could handle."

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.

Susi: "He saved the most Jews in the whole Holocaust. So at least here he should be singled out and he's not."

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 Jews he rescued viewed him as a savior. Yet some felt guilt over being saved while others perished. Then there are the critics that question how Kasztner can be a hero when his deal with Eichmann gave the enemy the means to transport thousands more Jews to concentration camps and their deaths. They question if he 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, which she states in the opening of the film as "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.

Eckstein: "It is my agreement between me and myself to tell you the truth abut events. I never said I would tell you all the truth…"

Ross even brings the killer and Kasztner’s surviving family members together for a confrontation.

Eckstein: "Susi, when I took part in what I took part in, it was not against Dr. Kasztner. It was against what he symbolized for me."

Susi: "What did he symbolize for you?"

Eckstein: "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 subject 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. And should the circumstances of war change the way we look at those labels or not? So Ross’ film lacks the depth and moral inquisition of such earlier Holocaust documentaries as Alain Resnais' “Night and Fog” and Max Ophuls' “The Sorrow and the Pity.” And maybe that's because she is -- if not looking for an answer -- at least trying to correct an omission from history that she and Kasztner's family deem an unfair oversight.

Fillmaker Gaylen Ross is to be commended for pulling this chapter of history out from obscurity and focusing our attention on a complex man. Kasztner’s life is full of contradictions, controversy, and ambiguity, which is why it proves such fascinating material.

Companion viewing: "Night and Fog," "The Sorrow and the Pity," "Inglorious Basterds," "Army of Shadows"

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