Zionism and the Holocaust are, obviously, the two central facts of 20th-century Jewish history. Each is, in its way, intimately linked with the history of cinema. Theodor Herzl’s awakening as a Jew is usually dated to his covering the Dreyfus Trial in 1894-’95, the year in which the Lumière brothers offered the first public screening of motion pictures. Both the Nazis and their opponents used film as a key element in their propaganda; film footage of the death camps has always been one of the most powerful forms of testimony to the Shoah’s horrors. And both these subjects have always fascinated Jewish filmmakers.
Consider two new documentary films that are opening on Aug. 10 at the Quad. “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl” and “Lion of Judah” are each artfully made retellings of stories that are familiar stories. But each film is flawed, in its own unique way.
What both films have in common besides their opening date and venue is the strong presence of a Jewish institutional backer. “Dream” is a production of Moriah Films, a division of the Simon Weisenthal Center, and is co-produced by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s director. “Lion” is written, directed and narrated by Matt Mindell under the aegis of the Jewish Enrichment Center, of which he is executive director. It is absurd to suggest that documentary filmmakers don’t bring a points-of-view to their material; at least these films have the grace to identify in their credits who is doing the talking, metaphorically.
“It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl,” narrated by Sir Ben Kingsley, is the more ambitious and more conventional of the two films. It is also by far the more successful. Richard Trank, the film’s writer-director, takes a primarily chronological approach to Herzl’s life, although he begins with a deftly limned retelling of the Dreyfus Affair and its impact on the rising journalistic star from Vienna. Herzl was the well-regarded Paris-based correspondent for Neue Freie Presse and although he had first-hand experience of anti-Semitism in Vienna, nothing had prepared him for the sheer felonious vitriol of the Parisian mobs who cried for Dreyfus’ head and the spilling of Jewish blood. The Dreyfus affair would prove a turning point in his life and, appropriately, a singularly apt moment from which to examine the young writer who would soon embark on one of the most quixotic of crusades.
Trank goes back to Austria and outlines the history of the rather assimilated Herzl family. Theodor was a bright young man whose way was frequently barred by anti-Semitic policies in the empire of Franz Josef. He left his college fraternity when confronted by open expressions of hatred. He abandoned the law when it became obvious that he would never be permitted to utilize his talents. He ended up an ambitious playwright and then half-stumbled into journalism. It would be journalism that would, in turn, propel him into his greatest career as the semi-official father of Zionism.
“Dream” follows Herzl’s tireless efforts to build, from tentative beginnings, a Zionist movement throughout Europe, as he sought a way to allow Jews to face their oppressors. He had first thought of writing a play on the subject, of challenging leading anti-Semites to duels and of counseling for the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity, before he wrote “The Jewish State,” in which he became one of the most eloquent advocates for a homeland for his people. With that publication, he let loose the first volley in what would be a fusillade that would last the remainder of his brief but full life. He would wrangle with Jewish aristocrats, the Hirsches and Rothschilds of the fin-de-siècle world, with royalty ranging from Kaiser Wilhelm to various sultans, and with his own friends and opponents in the Zionist movement. Trank tells this story with splendid clarity. Of necessity, he gives short shrift to other streams of thought within the movement, and one wishes for a bit more of the rather difficult domestic arrangements of the Herzl family — his wife was the daughter of a wealthy man and she lived as if she had married one.
There might be a few more minutes of screen time for such matters were it not for the rather stentorian and moralizing opening and closing sections of the film. The first juxtaposes Christoph Waltz reading Herzl’s description of the precarious state of Jews in the late-19th century with footage of contemporary neo-Nazi groups, cemetery vandalism and the like; the latter is a tribute to the contemporary State of Israel by Shimon Peres that reads like a politically loaded tourist brochure. Certainly, the current state of affairs for Jews in Europe in particular is getting darker, and the transformation of Israel into a modern nation is admirable, but these two sequences are almost clumsily blunt, especially in comparison to the intelligently turned-out material in between.
“Lion of Judah,” on the other hand, suffers from a more extreme sort of schizophrenia. In a mere 60 minutes, Mindell wants to tell us the story of Leo Zisman, a survivor of Auschwitz who we see leading a group of young Jews through contemporary Poland, a quick history of the Shoah, profiles of several of Zisman’s young charges, the current state of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and even the filmmaker’s own ruminations on both past and present events. It is, to say the least, an unsuccessful fusion.
And that is unfortunate, because there are several fascinating films squeezed into this tiny shoebox of a movie. Zisman himself is a real keeper, a wry, salty character who delivers some stories of defiance in the death camps that definitely bear retelling. He represents himself as something of a tough guy, and his behavior on the trip confirms that status in admirable ways. The young men and women who are travelling with him all have interesting stories about finding their way to a modern Jewish identity and each of them would be worth a short film alone. Perhaps the most interesting and articulate is Joe Kavitski, who isn’t even Jewish; he’s the film’s cinematographer and co-producer and his perspective as an outsider gives the film a particular intelligence and insight that is all too often absent from such work.
If only “Lion of Judah” were an hour or two longer and “It Is No Dream” were 10 minutes shorter, the New York film world would be a slightly better place. Well, this week, anyway.
“Lion of Judah,” written and directed by Matt Mindell, and “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl,” written and directed by Richard Trank, both open on Friday, Aug. 10 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.); for information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.