Rewind Review: Killing Kasztner

The main objective of a documentary is to inform and illuminate subject and bring it to a larger public’s attention. More often than not the subjects of a film’s investigation will be one that is greatly unknown. It is generally in learning new things and in examining difficult questions that the best documentaries are made.

Killing Kasztner is just such a documentary as it brings to light a largely unknown, suppressed and unexplored chapter of the history of World War II and the infancy of the Israeli state. It examines the polarizing figure of Rezso Kasztner a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann for the release of more than 1,600 Jewish prisoners. It investigates the controversy that exists surrounding the negotiation itself, the postwar implications, a trial Kasztner faced in Israel and his subsequent assassination at the hands of a young extremist Ze’ev Eckstein. Even walking into the film knowing all this beforehand you will still learn a great deal and it will provoke much thought and emotion throughout.

The film is an interesting one in as much as you not only hear the director/interviewer, Gaylen Ross, ask certain questions but also see the director on occasion, typically accompanying voice over she wrote and performed. It is most definitely an auteur’s approach to documentary film wherein the director is not an invisible hand but is to an extent involved and invested in the tale being told not unlike Werner Herzog is in some of his works. This involvement, however, is never obstructive and both sides of the story are presented and certain questions asked are never answered because they have no answers and so one could leave the film with either opinion of the man based on the facts presented. Moreover, this involvement works to the benefit of the film as just getting a little taste of what the story means to the person behind the camera raises the stakes for us as an audience a bit.

It is a film that tackles its subject matter from as many different angles as possible talking to many people on all sides of the tale from Kasztner’s family to his assassin, from the son of the man who tried him to the survivors who were saved by him and also journalists who covered him and were against him. A very full picture, in terms of participants, is painted of this very intricate story.
One of the truly great things about watching this film at Theatre N was that there was a Q & A with director/producer Gaylen Ross via Skype after the screening, where I was able to ask her about her handling visually of some of the interview footage with the assassin Ze’ev Eckstein. There was a different visual approach to him than all the other interview subjects. The shots were more close-up, sometimes extreme-close up on his mouth or eyes. Ross said she didn’t want him looking too “natural or dramatic” and that she wanted to “separate him from the others in the story as just a force that’s present.” Thus, he’s differentiated from both those for and against Kasztner but he is not commented on by the filmmaking process itself, which is preferable.

It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking film that brings to light a story which should be part of common knowledge regarding the holocaust. The change in attitude regarding Kasztner even as Ms. Ross was in production is rather impressive. It is a well-crafted and well done documentary. It is also one with an evocative, haunting and moving score which is well-placed throughout.
It’s a sprawling tale that does deserve our full attention it uses just about all of its two hour running time to its advantage. It also deftly avoids sensationalizing potentially combustible confrontations and renders the situations with calm, insight and art.

To keep tabs on where this film is playing next please visit their official website.