Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis purports to be an evenhanded investigation into the case of a Holocaust survivor who, by negotiating with Adolf Eichmann, saved many fellow Jews but apparently let many more perish. This compelling but lopsided documentary is best viewed by reading between the lines.
Given the interesting title and storyline and thankful lack of gruesome archival footage, Killing Kasztner should fare well in the glutted market of Holocaust documentaries. It opens Friday (October 23) in New York.
Director Gaylen Ross has done a comprehensive job of researching why Rezso Kasztner is so little discussed in the history books despite what would seem to be his heroic act of saving a trainload of nearly 1,700 Jews from Budapest during World War II. The fact that Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and settled in Israel, was accused of being a Nazi collaborator is the reason he remains persona non grata in many Jewish circles today.
Ross looks at the 1954 trial of Kasztner, which started as a libel case with Kasztner as plaintiff but ended as a war crime tribunal with Kasztner as defendant. The filmmaker uncovers important trial documents and interviews several individuals who witnessed the events.
Though Kasztner was later cleared, he became known as the man who sold his soul to the devil, and was eventually shot and killed by a right-wing extremist in 1957 on the doorstep of his Tel Aviv home.
Ross' coup is her interview with the assassin himself, Ze'ev Eckstein, followed by the climactic moment Eckstein meets the Kasztner family. What is newsworthy here, apart from illuminating the story in general, is Eckstein's reluctant confession that it wasn't his gunshot alone that killed Kasztner, and that a political conspiracy had been at work (i.e., the right wing trying to discredit the Ben-Gurion government, which had supported the Jewish Schindler).
Ross cannot confirm these revelations, but she suggests there was much more to the murder case, just as there was much more to the initial traitor charges against Kasztner.
By weaving the past with the present, Ross makes her narrative absorbing and relevant. Her technique is traditional but appropriate. Dramatically speaking, she diminishes the story a bit by opening her film with Eckstein, as opposed to building up to his interview. Trimming some of the family scenes wouldn't have hurt either.
Ross starts out her film as objective reporter but eventually, unintentionally, reveals her pro-Kasztner bias. The emphasis on the man's family and their suffering gets far more attention than any of the people who still resent Kasztner for allowing their family members to die. By the end, we hear a sappy, sentimental song during a reunion of those Jews who were on the train that was spared a trip to Auschwitz.
It is disingenuous of Ross to maintain her neutrality, as she does in her press notes and interviews. Why not just admit she is trying to help clear Kasztner's name? It is also troubling that the filmmaker views the history and founding of Israel with nationalist myopia, taking for granted the righteousness of the state. Killing Kasztner warrants a look, but a more critical eye behind the camera would have been helpful.