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NONFICTION FILM

Justice served: a Nazi hunter in word and deed

Simon Wiesenthal is profiled in a new documentary, one that debuted at ground zero for Hitler's crimes.

March 04, 2007|Clare Aigner | Special to The Times

Berlin — IN a snowy Berlin, where right-wing extremism is on the rise and skinheads linger, the long applause for the world premiere of "I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal," a documentary about the Nazi hunter who died in 2005, seemed especially poignant.

"This is overwhelming; it is a great way for the film to start its new life," said Rick Trank, director of the documentary film unit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "I had been working on another film in postproduction and a young Latino boy came in from the machine room and said, 'I heard some terrible news: The man you worked for died.' Seeing how he touched this kid, I knew we had to do something."

Planning for "I Have Never Forgotten You" began the next day, when Trank met with co-writer and producer Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and head of the Wiesenthal Center and part of the team that produced the 1997 Academy Award winning documentary "The Long Way Home." For the next nine months, their crews traversed Austria, England, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Ukraine and the U.S. interviewing Wiesenthal's friends, family and colleagues and hunting down rare footage and lost archives.

Wiesenthal was helpful in the research for the film, Trank said. "In his notes and books he had addresses, phone numbers -- he was incredibly detail-oriented. He had the New York address of Hermine Braunsteiner-Ryan, the woman who had ordered the torture and murder of hundreds of children."

The portrait of Wiesenthal the filmmakers assembled, with narration by Nicole Kidman, includes the expected bits -- a Barbara Walters interview, a Bill Clinton testimonial, Dalai Lama hugs. But there's also much fresh material in the film, set for a theatrical release in Los Angeles and New York in late May. Filmmakers had a rare interview with Wiesenthal's only child, Pauline, and there are bittersweet moments shot by an Austrian historian at Wiesenthal's 90th birthday party, where he tells stories he had never told.

War crimes pursued

BORN in 1908, Wiesenthal grew up in the Ukraine, where he taught his classmates Yiddish and listened to Hitler's campaign speeches on the radio. "I thought, 'This man cannot have a chance in a country of philosophers, thinkers and builders,' " Wiesenthal reflects in the film. But by 1945, Wiesenthal had spent time in a dozen concentration camps, and 89 members of his family and his future wife's family were among the millions lost in the Holocaust. Archival clips are at their saddest as he tells the story of how he lost his mother: "Do you know what it means to say, 'I hope she died during the transport?' I didn't want to think of her walking into the gas chamber."

When Wiesenthal was liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, he found he could not return to his former career as an architect. He realized what his life's work would be after seeing the efforts of the U.S. Army to bring the SS to trial. "There is no freedom without justice," he decided.

Over the next six decades, he chased down and helped prosecute 1,100 war criminals, using tenacity and the often low-tech tools of his time. Midcentury, a telephone call from Europe could take days, and just locating a simple photo of Adolf Eichmann, the designer of the Final Solution, became a quest. Wiesenthal had had no luck until one day his landlady in Lintz, Austria, heard him mention Eichmann and told him, "That is our neighbor."

In a bizarre coincidence, the Eichmann family lived nearby. But it wasn't until a handsome Polish survivor, Manus Diamant, was sent to romance one of Eichmann's lovers that Wiesenthal was able to get the photo that would help track Eichmann to Buenos Aires.

The film covers many of Wiesenthal's high-profile and controversial cases: finding the Gestapo aide who arrested Anne Frank, chasing Josef Mengele to Paraguay, refusing to condemn Kurt Waldheim even when pressure was heavy to do so.

Wiesenthal carried on, through death threats and even a bombing, at great cost to his family, and Pauline Wiesenthal speaks for the first time in Trank's film about her parents and the family's personal sacrifice. "She didn't say yes immediately," the filmmaker said. "We had come to film the unveiling of [Wiesenthal's] headstone in Israel, and then Pauline invited us to Shabbat. She felt very comfortable with us."

"We had the privilege of walking beside a prophet," said Ben Kingsley, who played Wiesenthal in the 1989 HBO feature "The Murderers Among Us" and attended the premiere of Trank's film at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. "Simon was absolute purity founded in truth."

"I Have Never Forgotten You" is not a testimonial; it also traces how public attitude toward Wiesenthal veered from ridicule, especially in Austria (from which he refused to move), through decades of controversy on to esteem in his later years.

And while Berlin may seem a curious site for a documentary about a Nazi hunter to premiere, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, explained: "We live with Holocaust denial at state level, Islam-phobia and anti-Semitism. What would Simon Wiesenthal say? 'We need the German people as partners to fight this terrible cancer.' "

The film's debut at the Berlinale was emotional for Trank, whose dream was that it open there because "Germany was one of the places where Simon's work had its biggest impact.

"When I flew into Berlin, I came up out of the S-Bahn and followed a long tunnel up into Potsdamer Platz. When I came up, the first thing I saw was Simon looking down from a film poster. I like to think about what Simon would have thought of this day."

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