As cover stories go, the official Communist Party line on the fate of Swedish diplomat-humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg was pretty bad. The official story is Wallenberg was accidentally arrested and passed away while languishing in Lubyanka Prison. That doesn’t exactly put you in the mood to sing “The Internationale,” does it? Yet, for years, Wallenberg’s family and admirers suspected his true fate was certainly more mysterious and possibly even worse. Alexander Rodnyanskiy set out to investigate the Wallenberg case as far as 1990 Glasnost policies would allow, but it turned out that wouldn’t be so very far after all judging from the resulting documentary, The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg¸ which screens again as a restored revival selection, twenty-five years after its original New York Jewish Film Festival premiere.
It was not merely false hope. For years, eyewitness accounts of prisoners claiming to have seen Wallenberg in various work camps and prisons trickled out of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just the Wallenberg family asking questions. The tens of thousands of Jewish Hungarians saved by Wallenberg, including future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, also wanted answers. In 1990, Wallenberg’s sister traveled to the USSR, assuming Glasnost would open all the vaults and archives to her. Alas, she was over-optimistic.
Rodnyanskiy’s documentary definitely investigates the Wallenberg disappearance, chasing down false leads and plausible but uncorroborated witness statements. However, it is also very clearly testing the limits of the supposedly new order, finding them not so different from the old regime. We see plenty of stone-walling, dissembling, and crude bureaucratic runaround. Even though Rodnyanskiy is the first to admit it does not make much sense for the Soviets to keep such an explosively embarrassing prisoner locked away somewhere for decades. Yet, all the evasiveness Rodnyanskiy captures just vindicates and further stokes our suspicions.
Mission is an amazing work of documentary filmmaking that renders a severe judgement against the Soviet Union’s past and present. Its future would also turn out to be just as disappointing. However, the Ukrainian Rodnyanskiy has evolved into one of Russia’s finest film producers, whose credits include Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. This is a frustrating film, but due to no fault of Rodnyanskiy. Sadly, it is just as timely now as it was then. Very highly recommended, the freshly restored, historically significant The Mission of Raoul Wallenberg screens this coming Monday (1/15) and Wednesday (1/17), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.