Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Mover: Latvian Rescuer Zanis Lipke

Zanis Lipke was a gruff, anti-Communist, blue collar booze-smuggler. He is not Hollywood’s stereotypical image of a dashing hero-figure, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, he also had a Communist daughter, a Jewish best-friend, and a healthy aversion to oppressive authority. Probably the last characteristic most directly spurred him to save at least 50 Jewish Latvians during the National Socialist occupation (it also made him a suspicious outsider during the subsequent Soviet occupation too). Although more widely-reported rescuers like Schindler saved greater numbers of people, Lipke did more than most with his limited resources. The under-heralded Lipke is finally depicted on-screen, as the subject of Davis Simanis Jr.’s The Mover, which releases today on DVD, from Menemsha Films.

Lipke is a loving family man, but he is definitely not a touchy-feely type. He is alarmed by his daughter’s survival prospects after the Germans drove out the Soviets, but she is determined to try her luck behind the Russian lines (ultimately, she would be executed by her fellow Communists rather than the Nazis, but such ironies fall outside Simanis’s focus on Lipke’s rescue activities).

Initially, the realist in Lipke rebuffs his friend Arke Smolansky when he seeks shelter for his daughter, but the resulting guilt sickens him. Soon, he is reluctantly sheltering Jewish fugitives at his workplace, until an informer betrays them. It is a close shave for Lipke, but instead of scaring him into submission, it motivates him to redouble his efforts closer to home. With his wife’s grudging acquiescence, Lipke constructs a secret bunker under his work-shed, where he shelters dozens of escapees from the ghetto, with the intention of ferrying them to safety hidden in his truckloads of scavenged furniture (hence the title).

The Mover might sound like it follows a predictable arc (one established in films like Schindler’s List, In Darkness, and Saviors in the Night), but we should never allow ourselves to become blasé about the heroism Lipke displayed or the systemic horrors he witnessed. In fact, veteran Latvian thesp Arturs Skrastin is quite remarkable as Lipke, realistically portraying his curtness and abrasiveness, before viscerally conveying the shock and abject revulsion he felt while observing Rumbula Massacre, leaving him shaken to his core.

In fact, the Rumbula sequences land like a gut-punch, knocking the wind out of the audience. Throughout the film, but particularly in these scenes, Simanis shows a sharp eye for Spartan but haunting imagery. Indeed, The Mover proves we did indeed need another film about the Holocaust, because we haven’t seen the genocidal crimes before in quite the way Simanis presents them.

Frankly, there is also room for another Lipke film. Although Lipke was never celebrated in his captive homeland during his lifetime, according to the Times of Israel, he persisted providing a safe harbor to Jewish Refuseniks attempting to escape the USSR. It would require a full epic to do his entire life justice, but Simanis’s tightly concentrated film runs an economical ninety-minutes (and never drags). Very highly recommended, The Mover is now available on DVD, from Menemsha Films.