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Movie Review

Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis

Kasztner’s list? A filmmaker’s quest.

'Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis' An image of Rezso Kasztner from "Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis." (Kasztner family/GR Films)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 23, 2010

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It’s hard for a movie not to hold an audience when it includes a meeting between a murderer and the daughter of his victim. If that’s not enough, the meeting takes place in the woman’s apartment and a topic of discussion is the murderer’s uncomfortableness addressing her by her first name. The victim’s grandchildren are there, too.

That scene, which comes toward the end of “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis,’’ is not so much compelling (which much of the rest of the documentary certainly is) as stomach-churning. You’re that flabbergasted at the nerve of the filmmaker, Gaylen Ross, in intruding on the encounter. One wrong move, and it’s reality TV. Instead, pained politeness prevails, and what ensues may not be revelatory but neither is it gruesome.

Nerve isn’t a problem for Ross. She not only directed and co-wrote “Killing Kasztner,’’ she narrates it (not a good idea) and gives herself several tight close-ups looking thoughtful. She spent seven years making her film, shooting in Israel, Europe, and New York, and she’s not about to disappear behind the camera.

But a more modest filmmaker would never have tackled something so ambitious. “Killing Kasztner’’ touches on Holocaust history, Jewish self-identity, Israeli politics, and, of course, the life and death of the murder victim, Rezso Kasztner. All of those subjects are worth their own documentary, each presumably better than the overbrimming film Ross has made. But the very things that make “Killing Kasztner’’ maddening — herky-jerky storytelling, heavy-handedness, doomy music, unearned moral certitude — keep it moving right along.

A lawyer and journalist in Hungary during World War II, Kasztner was part of Vaada, the Help and Rescue Committee. That organization sought to aid Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied territory. Kasztner’s efforts directly led to saving 1,600 Jews in 1944 (he bought their freedom from Adolf Eichmann at $1,000 a head). In the words of an expert quoted in “Killing Kasztner,’’ this was “the single largest successful rescue by Jews during the Holocaust.’’ After the war, Kasztner emigrated to Israel and became a government spokesman.

Was he a hero, a kind of Jewish Oskar Schindler? At least one person didn’t think so. A Jerusalem hotelier published a pamphlet in 1953 accusing Kasztner of collaborating with the Nazis. Kasztner’s ends may have been laudable, this line of reasoning went, but his means compromised them utterly. Not to fight was to collude. A libel suit against the pamphleteer led to a 17-month trial. The judge ruled in the writer’s favor. “Kasztner, in dealing with the Nazis, sold his soul to the devil,’’ the judge declared.

The Supreme Court of Israel overruled the verdict in 1958 — but a right-wing extremist, Ze’ev Eckstein, had shot and killed Kasztner the year before. It’s Eckstein whom we see meeting Kasztner’s daughter 45 years later. Often onscreen, he provides the documentary with its most striking moments. Eckstein — articulate, intense, a moral cipher — has such an arresting presence you regret that Ross didn’t make him her subject. There’s no question that Kasztner has vastly more significance for the historian. Eckstein, a grim footnote to history, has much more for the artist.

Director Gaylen Ross will be present for Q&A sessions after the 1, 3:30, and 6 p.m. screenings of “Killing Kasztner’’ at West Newton Cinema today through Sunday.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

KILLING KASZTNER: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis Directed by: Gaylen Ross

Written by: Ross and Andy Cohen

At: West Newton Cinema

Running time: 118 min.

In English and occasional Hebrew (which is subtitled)

Unrated

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