Matej Minac has made the story of Sir Nicholas Winton his life’s work. “Nicky’s Family,” Minac’s new documentary, which opens on July 19, is his third feature film as a director. Each of his films has been a reworking of Winton’s story.
Nicholas Winton is someone whose life is a worthy subject. He was an English Holocaust rescuer who was the primary moving force behind the Kindertransport program that rescued Czech Jewish children from the Nazis. In his daily life a stockbroker, Winton had nothing to gain from his actions, risking his job, his safety and his future for nothing other than the satisfaction of saving hundreds of lives.
Unfortunately, each of Minac’s three films on Winton — the fictionalized “All My Loved Ones” (1999) and the documentaries “The Power of Good” (2002) and “Nicky’s Family” — is preachy, bathetic and clumsily manipulative. The latest film, made in 2011 but enjoying a theatrical release this week, is certainly the best of the three, but that is a relative judgment.
The material itself is compelling. Winton, who is now 104 years old, was made an MBE in 1983 and knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002. Winton’s family name originally was Wertheim and he was a baptized former Jew, a fascinating tidbit that Minac managed to omit. Without making too much of that fact, it is certainly pertinent enough that a more focused film would have explored it, even if only in passing.
That, however, is the least of the problems plaguing “Nicky’s Family.”
Winton’s efforts resulted in the rescue of over 650 children, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in a wide variety of fields. Their numbers include Canadian telejournalist Joe Schlesinger (who narrates the film), geneticist Renata Laxova, Labour Parliament member Alfred Baron Dubs, the late filmmaker Karel Reisz, and an impressive collection of doctors, scientists, writers and business executives. Regrettably, Minac apparently felt he needed to include as many of the more than 200 available survivors as possible. As a result, the film feels congested and frequently confusing, with numerous digressions undermining its otherwise chronological structure.
With so much of the narrative carried by the Kindertransport alumni, nearly a third of the film goes by before Winton’s role is elucidated. Sir Nicholas has long been both refreshingly candid and admirably self-effacing and, although he is frequently on camera, he actually tells very little of his own story. Except for his rescue activities in pre-war Prague and London, and a brief sidebar on his long and happy marriage, we learn almost nothing about his life. For example, while the film offers several minutes of charming footage of Winton bantering with Grete, his late wife, we are told nothing about her. Instead, we get lengthy recap of the dedication to charitable work of the grandchildren of the Jews he saved.
Such omissions are typical of “Nicky’s Family.” Minac and co-writer Patrik Press spend a lot of screen time in dramatic recreations showing panic-stricken Jewish families beseeching Winton for help, long encomia to the idyllic nature of pre-war Czech society, and the recycling of over-familiar newsreel clips of Hitler ranting, Nazis marching and Jewish children in despair. What the film doesn’t convey is a sense of how Winton’s organization worked, how he managed to rescue Jews when almost no one else could, and what happened to him after the war.
Finally, “Nicky’s Family” is yet another example of recent documentaries that mix newsreel footage and period photos with artlessly staged imitations. Although the filmmakers’ intentions are undoubtedly admirable, the result violates the integrity of the historical images and inadvertently raises dangerous questions about the reality of the events depicted.
Sir Nicholas Winton and his extended “family” deserve better.
“Nicky’s Family” opens on Friday, July 19 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.), the Malverne Cinema (350 Hempstead Ave., Malverne), the Kew Gardens Cinema (81-05 Lefferts Boulevard, Queens) and the Soundview Cinema Port Washington (7 Soundview Market Place, Port Washington). The film also plays July 19-24 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue).