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A Jewish doctor's courage and caring in Auschwitz

'Out of the Ashes,' Sunday on Showtime, recounts one woman's ethical dilemma and will to survive.

April 12, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

It may not be fair to compare Showtime's original movie "Out of the Ashes" with "The Pianist," but because of the timing, it's almost unavoidable.

Like Roman Polanski's devastating film, "Out of the Ashes," which can be seen at 8 p.m. Sunday, is based on the true story of a Holocaust survivor, in this case a Jewish doctor who saved countless lives and endured unspeakable acts at Auschwitz.

The two storytelling approaches could hardly be more different, however.

While "The Pianist" presents its clear-eyed tale of terror in a show-don't-tell style that makes it all the more riveting, "Out of the Ashes" is loaded with weighty dialogue and hopscotching flashbacks that diminish its power to a degree, reminding you that you're watching a TV movie. Even so, the inspiring story at its heart and a potent cast headed by Christine Lahti lift it above the usual docudrama fare.

"Out of the Ashes," directed by Joseph Sargent and adapted by Anne Meredith from Gisella Perl's memoir, "I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz," opens as the skilled obstetrician-gynecologist arrives from Europe in post-World War II Manhattan.

While trying to obtain an American medical license and rebuild her practice in New York, the Hungarian-born Perl (Lahti) is brought before a triumvirate of patriarchal Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucrats -- played by Bruce Davison, Beau Bridges and the late Richard Crenna -- seeking to determine whether she was a Nazi collaborator.

The film unfolds like a courtroom drama as Perl must recount the horrors she endured as a prisoner, including those at the hands of the depraved Dr. Josef Mengele (a queasily convincing Jonathan Cake) and the bizarre "commandant," Irma Griese (Nina Young). Through Nazi deception, Perl quickly becomes an unwitting witness to Mengele's perverse genetic experiments in the name of Aryan glory.

Later, as head of the women's infirmary at Auschwitz, she performs abortions to save the lives of expectant mothers who would have otherwise been slaughtered once their pregnancies became known. In doing so, she repeatedly risks her own life.

Though Perl resents the INS board's interrogation as she defends her actions, her devotion as a doctor and a Jew who treasures the gift of life soon becomes obvious.

If the verdict is never in doubt, neither is the power of Perl's testimony.


'Out of the Ashes'

Where: Showtime

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under age 14, with a cautionary advisory for violence).

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