Mark Jonathan Harris' superb documentary, "The Long Way Home," covers much familiar territory concerning the Holocaust and its aftermath. Yet in focusing on the three turbulent years between the end of World War II and the formation of the state of Israel, it offers epic dimension and admirable clarity and calmness to a complex and wrenching chain of events.
The result is an eloquent saga of historical importance that is as timely and significant as today's headlines reporting the tragic plight of refugees in Africa, Bosnia and Central America.
In only a two-hour running time, Harris has in effect synthesized events dealt with by filmmakers who preceded him, linking these events without diminishing their individual importance. By doing so, he gives scope to the entire terrible ordeal experienced by European Jews from the advent of Hitler through the further hardships of the postwar years.
Harris has not only come up with an astutely assembled and remarkably wide range of archival footage, but he has presented it in the very best restored condition possible, helping give his film a heightened, often harrowing, immediacy. Shrewdly, he has limited his interviewees to only those who witnessed or participated in crucial experiences, which allows their presence on camera to serve as punctuation rather than interruptions in his assemblage of period clips.
On the soundtrack, however, we hear the words of countless others, spoken by Edward Asner, Sean Astin, Martin Landau, Miriam Margolyes, David Paymer, Nina Siemaszko, Helen Slater and Michael York. Morgan Freeman serves splendidly as the film's narrator. Composer Lee Holdridge has created a score as dignified as it is stirring.
Harris spends the first 10 minutes presenting footage of the concentration camps as they were liberated by Allied forces at the end of the war. Many of us have seen these images of hell on earth countless times. Surely, such images should have signaled the immediate end of a suffering so hideous as to be beyond the comprehension of anyone who did not endure it personally. That was not to be the case, and that's why it was essential for Harris to include the atrocity footage yet again. There might be an end to starvation and other Nazi atrocities, but many Jews who tried to return to their homes found their houses destroyed or confiscated by others. Many also learned that most or all of their relatives were dead or missing. And they were greeted with blatant anti-Semitism; in a village near Vilna, Lithuania, five returning concentration camp survivors were found murdered. In their pockets was the message, "This will be the fate of all surviving Jews."
Most survived, however, only to be placed behind more barbed wire in displaced-persons camps, noted for overcrowding and substandard living conditions. No wonder the desire of emigrating to Palestine to establish a Jewish homeland blossomed in such circumstances.
Harris does a masterful job in outlining the formidable, disgraceful obstacles to realizing this dream in a world that was so caught up with postwar recovery and growing anti-communist paranoia that it was by and large indifferent to the continuing suffering of Europe's Jews.
Harris makes it very clear that Britain, given a League of Nations post-World War I mandate to administer Palestine, placed paramount importance in the immediate post-World War II period in ensuring access to Arab oil. Clearly, Britain didn't want to irk the Arab world with the idea of Jews emigrating there to form a Jewish state.
Because of this, some 200,000 European and Eastern European Jewish Holocaust survivors were restricted to emigrating to Palestine at a mere 1,500 a month. Despite this restriction, however, as Harris succinctly demonstrates, the refugees were determined to reach Palestine--an incredible, dangerous and illegal mission that culminated in the founding of Israel.
"The Long Way Home" is a major accomplishment on the part of Moriah Films, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's film division, with the center's dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier serving as the film's co-producer along with Richard Trank, Moriah Films' executive producer.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes World War II concentration camp footage and many other images of hardship and suffering.
'The Long Way Home'
A Seventh Art Releasing presentation of a Moriah Films production. Writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris. Producers Rabbi Marvin Hier & Richard Trank. Cinematographer Don Lenzer. Editor Kate Amend. Music Lee Holdridge. Narrator Morgan Freeman. Featuring the voices of Edward Asner, Sean Astin, Martin Landau, Miriam Margolyes, David Paymer, Nina Siemaszko, Helen Slater and Michael York. Running time: 2 hours.
* Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869, and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.