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"I Have Never Forgotten You"--Simon Wiesenthal Documentary

Here's my review in today's Post of a new documentary on Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor. A response from the film's director, Richard Trank, follows in the next item here on the big blog.

"Please," Simon Wiesenthal begged as he neared the end of his life, "do not turn me into a hero." His face fallen, the eyes of a supposedly hard man now overflowing with tears, the legendary Nazi hunter asked to be remembered only as a survivor. "I do not feel like a hero."

Wiesenthal was feared, loathed, resented. Who was this little man to appoint himself investigator and prosecutor in a half-century-long quest for the architects and executioners of the Nazi genocide? His house was firebombed, his daughter threatened. But nothing stopped his search for those who knew that time is evil's press agent.

In the new documentary "I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life & Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal," the subject is portrayed exactly as he hoped not to be -- as an almost impossibly good and devoted hero. The popular image of a grim, vengeful, relentless pursuer of bad old men is leavened by sweet scenes of Wiesenthal telling jokes, recalling his murdered mother and honoring his endlessly patient and loyal wife.

At last, we see something more than an investigative machine dedicated to honoring the 89 members of his family and the millions of others who were killed by the Nazis, more than the media personality who took special pleasure in gathering friends to celebrate his 90th birthday in the same hotel in Vienna that Hitler called his favorite. Here, Wiesenthal is the old man who could tell a heart-wrenching story about how his "real Jewish mother" cooked a meal for her son and his wife in the Lvov ghetto and then collapsed into Simon's arms, thereby revealing that she could assemble that meal only because she had not eaten a morsel for five days.

This documentary, produced by an arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and co-written by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder and director, is anything but evenhanded or probing. A densely packed 105 minutes contain riveting clips of Wiesenthal in TV interviews around the world, fleeting synopses of the captures that made his reputation, and glimpses into his own pain and deep sense that he had no choice but to force victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike to confront what happened.

But the story of Wiesenthal, as if it weren't dramatic enough on its own merits, is forced to compete with the sappiest of manipulative musical scores -- please, you want to shout, give the oboist a break -- a cheesy overemphasis on the Wiesenthal Center and its director, and, worst of all, a Hollywood mentality in which history is only deemed palatable if it is blessed by the touch of celebrity. So here's a clip of Frank Sinatra declaring Wiesenthal to be "my friend," and here's Wiesenthal with Liz Taylor, and here's the Nazi hunter being portrayed in the movies by Laurence Olivier and Ben Kingsley.

All of which leaves no time to show that Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, did far more than find old Nazis in their South American hideaways. You don't get to see how he (and the prosecutors with whom he worked) identified and recruited 77 witnesses from the United States, Canada, Germany and Austria to testify against an SS commandant named Josef Schwammberger, who personally killed more than 50 Jews and assisted in the murders of more than 3,300 others and was finally brought to trial in 1992, when he was 79. You don't get inside the heads of the Germans and Austrians who blamed Wiesenthal for saddling them with the burden of their fathers' and grandfathers' crimes. You don't even hear from other survivors, the ones who tried to make new lives for themselves rather than combing the globe for killers.

Ultimately, "I Have Never Forgotten You," narrated by Nicole Kidman simply because she is a celebrity willing to lend her lovely Australian lilt to the project, doesn't trust history. Simon Wiesenthal did: He knew that if he devoted his life to smoking out the rats and confronting the world with the face of evil, he could help create a record that would survive all the oboes and strings, and all the latter-day quests for forgiveness. He knew that what would matter in the end was only the truth, without the slightest bit of postproduction.

I Have Never Forgotten You (105 minutes, at Cinema Arts Theater) is not rated.

By Marc Fisher |  June 8, 2007; 6:01 PM ET
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