Monday, July 15, 2013

Nicky’s Family: The Father of the Kindertransport

As a proper British gentleman, Sir Nicholas Winton never boasted of his heroic efforts in the days leading up to World War II.  Fifty years after the fact, his beloved wife chanced upon a treasure trove of documents in their attic.  Much to his surprise, she was rather determined to make his story known to the world.  A BBC special later, the newly knighted Winton became known as the “British Schindler.”  Czech filmmakers Matej Mináč and Patrik Pašš reveal the full extent of Winton legacy in Nicky’s Family (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Alert and active at 104, Winton is clearly somewhat bemused by his new found celebrity.  Since his parents converted to Christianity, Winton is not officially recognized as a “Righteous Gentile,” but that hardly matters.  As a young man, Winton was a promising banker, poised to become one of his generation’s “Masters of the Universe.”  However, when a friend pulled out of a planned skiing vacation, Winton agreed to join him on a fact-finding trip to the Sudetenland-less Czechoslovakia.

More clear-sighted than many of England’s blue bloods, Winton was already alarmed by the rise of National Socialism.  Seeing the conditions in Czechoslovakia’s refugee camps only compounded his concerns.  He resolved to at least save as many children as possible launching what would become known as the Czech Kindertransport.  Winton’s fascinating story of intrigue, involving beautiful German spies and a less than indulgent boss, came to an abrupt end when Britain formally entered the war—until the BBC started tracking down survivors of the Kindertransport for their benign ambush.

When Winton comes face-to-face with the grown children of the Kindertransport, it is powerful real life drama.  It is also rewarding to hear how the survivors and their children and grandchildren have embraced humanitarian causes as a way to repay (or pay forward) Winton’s defiant compassion, at least up to a point.  However, director Mináč and his editor-co-writer-co-producer Pašš, rather overdo the feel-good call to service which ends their documentary.  After a while, the cavalcade of classrooms working to save the world becomes numbing. 

Still, the documentary’s undeniable strength is the story of Winton’s rescue operations, told through his on-camera recollections and dramatic recreations.  Gripping like an espionage thriller but also inspiring, these sequences really constitute the guts of the film.

Yes, many documentaries have addressed historically related subjects in recent years.  However, the presence of Winton and the participation of many of his “children,” such as rocket scientist Ben Abeles and Canadian journalist Joe Schlesinger, who serves as a supplemental narrator, sets Family apart from the field.  Just hearing from the centenarian Winton is sufficiently significant.  Recommended for students of history and parents ready to start teaching their children about the tragedies of WWII, Nicky’s Family opens this Friday (7/19) in New York at the Quad Cinema.