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Wiesenthal legacy, beyond 'Nazi hunter'

July 06, 2007|Lael Loewenstein | Special to The Times

The latest addition to a formidable list of Holocaust-related documentaries, "I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal" provides a compelling look at the man whose persistent research and unflinching resolve led to the capture of 1,100 former Nazi officers.

When he died in 2005, Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, left a legacy that included a worldwide human rights organization bearing his name. Despite his humanitarian work, however, Wiesenthal's name became inextricably linked to the reductive moniker "Nazi hunter." There was more to him than simply that label, and the film successfully contextualizes his legacy for a new generation.

Drawing on a variety of sources, including archival footage, photos, and interviews with friends, family, colleagues and Wiesenthal, the film paints an intimate -- and at times harrowing -- portrait of its subject's life.

The Ukrainian-born Wiesenthal was on his way to a career in architecture when he was deported to the first of several concentration camps in 1942; three years later, U.S. soldiers liberating Austria's Mauthausen camp found Wiesenthal barely alive. He and his wife, Cyla, lost 89 relatives during the war.

Wiesenthal soon began working with the U.S. Army's War Crimes Division, helping to furnish evidence on Nazi atrocities. He later opened a documentation bureau, pursuing tips leading to the capture of some of the most infamous SS agents, including Hitler's close colleague Adolf Eichmann. Though he was driven by an innate sense of justice -- not, as some have speculated, a quest for revenge -- Wiesenthal fell into his postwar career almost inadvertently.

Produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Moriah Films documentary unit, "I Have Never Forgotten You" is appreciative of its subject. Yet the film, directed by Richard Trank ("The Long Way Home") and narrated by Nicole Kidman, humanizes rather than lionizes Wiesenthal: It elucidates some less flattering aspects of Wiesenthal's character, such as how his commitment to his work took him away from his wife and daughter and jeopardized their sense of security. In the late '70s and early '80s, after he produced evidence linking popular Austrian leaders to Nazi activity, Wiesenthal became the target of hate crimes. Yet even when Cyla begged him to leave Vienna, Wiesenthal stubbornly insisted, "A soldier does not leave the battlefield."

"I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal." MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing violent images and descriptions of the Holocaust. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Regency South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701.

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