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For Wiesenthal Center, a Liberating Experience

October 09, 1994|Anne Bergman

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, decided late last year that it was time for the institution to venture into filmmaking, to make its own documentaries on what has always been its foremost interest: Keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. Thus, Moriah Films, the center's official film division, was born.

With its name inspired by Mt. Moriah where, Judaic teachings say, Jerusalem was founded, the division saw its first documentary, "Liberation," screened last month at the Deauville Film Festival in France, where it was the only documentary shown in a special edition of the festival devoted to commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-day. The film chronicles life on the Allied homefronts as Adolf Hitler's military machine acted to decimate Europe's Jewish population.

"We didn't see this as another Holocaust film--this is much more," Hier says. "But on the other hand, to ignore the Holocaust by telling only the military aspect would be a grave disservice. So we balanced the two."

"Liberation" will have its Los Angeles premiere on Oct. 18, and then will be released throughout the world early next year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of VE Day in May, 1995.

The film begins with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's radio broadcast announcing on Sept. 3, 1939, that "this country is at war with Germany." What follows is a collection of images--still photographs and archival and newsreel footage--supplemented by original radio news broadcasts and first-person accounts culled from letters and journals written during wartime.

"Liberation" often tells its story by documenting ironies that are difficult to accept. One segment focuses on the response of Europe's Catholics to the war. Pope Pius XII, for instance, is shown praying for the swift victory of Hitler and his invading armies, despite the eyewitness accounts detailing how many German Catholics were themselves interred in concentration camps, or even executed, for offering help to Jews.

And even Jews themselves differed in their response to the war and to Hitler. In a chilling sequence, newsreel footage shows a group of rabbis, all recent European immigrants, marching through Washington hoping to implore President Roosevelt to meet with them and draw his attention to the massacre of European Jews. But at the last-minute urging of American Jews, fearful of an embarrassing confrontation, Roosevelt refuses.

Hier co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Gilbert, a fellow at Oxford University. Hier and "Liberation" producer-director Arnold Schwartzman, an Oscar-winning team in 1981 for their documentary "Genocide," also collaborated in 1990 on "Echoes That Remain," a film documenting pre-World War II European Jewish life.

With such a strong body of work behind them, financing the $650,000 film came relatively easily, mostly from "friends of the Wiesenthal Center who liked the idea of its being involved in producing documentaries," says Hier, 55.

"Liberation" has the look of an expensive film, thanks to the liberal use of footage from film archives around the world. Actors who participated in the project as narrators, including Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart, donated their efforts.

Many of the songs Schwartzman, 58, chose for the film were his own favorites from that time, which he often contrasts with a tinge of irony to groups of images for a glaring effect. Footage of Hitler standing in front of the Eiffel Tower during the French Occupation, for instance, is set to "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

Although Hier says with a laugh that there are "no plans to challenge the big-time studios in town," in testimony to the center's commitment to Moriah Films, they'll get their own offices, where they hope to regularly produce documentaries.

As for future films, Hier sees resistance activity during World War II as a possible subject. "Each country had their own resistance movement, he says, "yet we don't know who they were. If someone asked me to name 15 major resisters, I couldn't even name them!"

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