Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Killing Kasztner

The movies usually have it wrong. In real life, killers are boring. It is the heroes who are interesting and Rezső Kasztner was absolutely fascinating. A respected lawyer, journalist, and political leader, Kasztner saved 1,600 fellow Jews arranging what came to be known as the Kasztner Train. Ironically though, it was Kasztner’s name that became anathema to many Israelis, rather than that of his assassin. This strange apparent paradox is explained in Gaylen Ross’s Killing Kasztner: the Jew Who Dealt with Nazis (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It has been said that if Kasztner had not been Jewish, he would have been celebrated as a hero much like Oskar Schindler. Like Schindler, Kasztner dealt directly with the National Socialists as a leader of the Vaada, the Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee. Every life rescued on Kasztner's train to Switzerland was purchased dearly through bribery. In fact, Kasztner was penniless when he and his family arrived in Israel at the end of the war.

Despite the many lives undeniably saved by Kasztner, the very idea of a Jew negotiating with high level Nazis, including Adolph Eichmann, was difficult for many Israelis to accept. The issue came to a head when the ruling Mapai party strongly encouraged Kasztner to sue for libel when accused of collaboration. Though Kasztner’s victory initially seemed assured, the discovery of an affidavit he wrote on behalf Kurt Becher, his old SS contact, proved to be his undoing. It cost him his case (though he would later be vindicated in a little noted appeal) and ultimately led to his assassination. Strangely though, Gaylen somewhat buries her lede, only briefly mentioning newly discovered evidence that suggests Kasztner acted at the behest of his government in the Becher affair and took the fall on their behalf during his trial.

Kasztner is clearly one of the most complex and intriguing historical figures of the last century. His killer, Ze’ev Eckstein, is not. However, Gaylen gives inordinate screen time to this banally evil figure. Granted, securing Eckstein’s first on-camera interview is a legitimate “get,” but he has little interesting to say. Frankly, his carefully chosen words, expressing guarded regret perhaps, but never actual remorse, quickly become tiresome. As a result, his face-to-face meeting with Kasztner’s daughter is completely unsatisfying for all involved.

In truth, Gaylen’s film is best when advocating on behalf of Kasztner’s legacy. She also got real results, prodding the director of Yad Vashem to recognize Kasztner, after a heated meeting with survivors of his rescue operation. Through this prism, Gaylen offers a revisionist perspective on an Israeli society she argues prefers dead heroes like Hannah Senesh, to living heroes like Kasztner. While such social criticism is not without interest, the film’s best moments illuminate the neglected story of Kasztner and his rescue efforts.

Using straight-forward documentary techniques, Gaylen makes a very convincing case on behalf of Kasztner. One just wishes she had not spent so much time questioning Eckstein, the hostile witness. Still, Gaylen conveys a good sense of Kasztner the man, which is definitely important. As it is, Killing Kasztner offers a challenging look at an unfairly overlooked episode in history. It opens Friday (10/23) at Cinema Village.