Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The Rescuers: The Righteous Diplomats

Typically, it is the most privileged elite who serve in a nation’s diplomatic corp. They should be the ones who could most afford to follow their consciences’ dictates, yet career preservation and general CYA-ing are more often the norm. British historian Sir Martin Gilbert and his Rwandan research associate Stephanie Nyombayire profile twelve exceptional diplomats who bent the rules and in some cases risked their lives to save Jews from the National Socialists in Michael King’s The Rescuers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Without question, Gilbert is the preeminent historian of the Holocaust. For Nyombayire, who lost one hundred family members in the Rwandan genocide, crimes against humanity are not just an academic issue. Together, they accompany Jewish survivors as they revisit the various stops along their flight to freedom, paying tribute to the diplomats who interceded on their behalf, often in defiance of their nation’s policies. Pointedly, Nyombayire asks where were similar such rescuers in Rwanda, while Gilbert wonders why were there not more of them during World War II?

Essentially, Rescuers becomes a buffet of heroism, profiling both the well known and the unjustly forgotten alike. While the work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and American Varian Fry are relatively well known, thanks to television dramas (starring Richard Chamberlain and William Hurt, respectively), Gilbert and Nyombayire also give due credit to American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, who supplied thousands of visas to asylum-seekers and gave Fry’s mission the deceptive veneer of official State Department sanction.

However, the most extraordinary examples must be Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese counsel to Lithuania, and German National Socialist Party member Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz. In open defiance of his instructions, Duckwitz facilitated the safe passage of 7,200 Jews from occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden, rather than deporting them to Germany.

Rescuers never constitutes ground-breaking filmmaking, but it is highly informative and deeply reverent of its subjects. Granted, some of the staged conversations are indeed stagey, but they also offer real substance. The cynical might also accuse Rescuers of manipulation, but when Gilbert recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan to Nyombayire, if you cannot appreciate the heaviness of the moment, you really ought to have your soul checked.

As a dramatic lesson in history, ethics, and even geography, The Rescuers will be ideal for classroom viewing. Yet, the courageous case studies it chronicles should fascinate viewers of any age. Recommended for general audiences, The Rescuers opens this Friday (5/9) in New York at the Quad Cinema.