Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight


After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. Follow the link to read a sample from her new eBook "Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter."

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi applauds Gett

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Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the story of a woman who is determined to obtain a divorce even though her husband is equally determined to prevent it. Because Viviane and Elisha are Israelis, they can only divorce in a ceremony presided over by the three Rabbis who comprise a Bet Din (religious court), and the Rabbis will only proceed if Elisha agrees to give his free and unfettered consent. And thus his wife--Viviane Amsalem--begins a five year ordeal which reveals the degree to which Israeli women are "chained" to their husbands not just by custom but also by law.

This is strong stuff, fully intended to galvanize public opinion by using the full power of artistic expression to create societal change. Does it succeed? Only time will tell, but the answer right now appears to be yes. When co-writer/co-director Shlomi Elkabetz did his Q&A after the January 15 screening of Gett at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival, he announced that Gett would be screened at the annual conference of rabbinical judges, and just today Haaretz reported that it actually happened.

So suffice it to say that you will want to see Gett yourself when it opens in Metro Chicago tomorrow (2/27/15) at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Plaza Cinema in Highland Park. Don't be intimidated by the fact that Gett is the third and final chapter in a trilogy of films which include To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008). I have seen all three films, and I can assure you that each one is free-standing and self-contained.

You do not need to know anything in advance to appreciate the drama inherent in Gett. However, regular readers will anticipate that I have already posted reviews of all three films, and I have also posted an overview of the complete trilogy on my Blog Second City Tzivi. So if you would like to do some homework before you go, START HERE.

Full Disclosure: The first time I saw Gett was when I watched it on my computer way back in September, right after I watched Zero Motivation (which I also watched on my computer). At the time, although I liked both films very much, I thought that Zero Motivation was just a little bit better than Gett. So when I wrote my Ophir Update post, I expressed surprise that Gett (which had received 12 Ophir Nominations from the Israel Film Academy but only won two) won Best Picture even though Zero Motivation (which had also received 12 Ophir Nominations) had won six (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, plus Best Casting, Best Editing, and Best Music).

Now that I have seen both films on big screens, however, I see that the members of the Israel Film Academy were correct: seen as intended--on a big screen--Gett is an overwhelming experience. You simply will not feel the claustrophobia of the courtroom as Viviane does unless you enter that cavernous space with her. And if you do, some thoughts and opinions you may never have questioned before, may well be forever changed.

For schedule information and links to online ticket purchase, visit the Landmark Theatre website.


Top photo: Ronit Elkabetz as "Viviane Amsalem" in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.
Botton photo: Members of the Bet Din from left: Rami Danon, Eli Gorstein, and Roberto Pollack. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Tzivi reviews Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem

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"I carry Sholem Aleichem with me. I have my entire life… So these two stories, these two journeys are intertwined, his and mine, even though we never met… This is my legacy. People should know who I am and what informs me… I am a shtetl Jew. I am. Even though I've never lived in a shtetl, I come from there. These are my rules. This is how I think. This is how I dream." Theodore Bikel (1/11/15)

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem, a new documentary from the National Center for Jewish Film, is an intentionally personal story told by one of the most accomplished and politically-influential Jewish entertainers of the 20th Century. Director John Lollos combines  scenes from Bikel's acclaimed solo performance Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears with footage filmed at the annual Sholem Aleichem Yahrzeit in Manhattan in 2013. In addition to the songs, monologues, and moments of reflection from Bikel, Lollos also includes narration by Alan Alda to provide context (written by Lollos and his co-Producer Marsha Lebby), plus interviews with a wide variety of talking heads. It makes for an enchanting and fast-paced 75 minutes.

Bikel begins-appropriately enough-with a scene from Sholem Aleichem's "Modern Children" which is the third of the eight Tevye stories (the one about Tzeitel and Motel). This is followed by appreciative remarks from Sheldon Harnick (the genius who wrote the lyrics to all the songs in Fiddler on the Roof), as well as Yiddish Theatre star Fyvush Finkel, and Michael Wex (author of the popular book Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods).

From there, Bikel introduces the audience to Kasrilevke (the mythical setting of many of Sholem Aleichem's best stories), followed by comments from Allen Lewis Rickman (the actor who played the shtetl husband at the beginning of the Coen Brothers' hilarious film A Serious Man).

Having ensured that we now know a bit about Sholem Aleichem, Bikel switches to the first person to tell us more about himself. How many people watching Theodore Bikel play a patriarchal Tevye on stage remember that he was once a handsome young folk singer? I do. As I told Bikel when we spoke on the phone on January 11: "Your music was part of my cultural background when I was growing up in the '60s. You were singing about liberal causes and enriching the world." To which Bikel replied: "I plead guilty for all of it."

Indeed, in addition to albums with titles like "Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folks Songs" (sung in Yiddish) and "Theodore Bikel Sings Songs of Israel" (sung in Hebrew), Bikel can also be found on the album "Greatest Folksingers of the 'Sixties" side-by-side with the likes of Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band!

As the two intertwined stories unfold, Bikel continues to tell more Sholem Aleichem stories, perform more Yiddish songs, and do more personal and professional reminiscing. Meanwhile Finkel, Harnick, Rickman and Wex are joined by many others who combine to form an Ashkenazi-accented "Greek Chorus." And as they all speak, Lollos artfully inserts just the right imagery, from Marc Chagall's paintings to Roman Vishniac's photographs to signs posted in the American South in the Jim Crow Era: "No Negroes, No Jews & No Dogs Allowed."

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem is a film to see in a theatre and also to buy on DVD. See it once with an appreciative audience and you will want to watch it at home-again and again-with your family.

To read more snippets from my interviews with Theodore Bikel and John Lollos, follow THIS LINK to the JUF News "Arts & Entertainment" section.

Photos courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film.


Tzivi reviews Zero Motivation

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Zero Motivation Zohar 

 Zero Motivation, tied for my Top Pick in the Feature category at this year’s Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, opens today at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. So if you didn’t see it at CFIC ’14 back in October, you now have another chance to see one the best—and most highly lauded—filmmaking debuts of the year.

This is not hyperbole. In April 2014, Zero Motivation won Best Narrative Feature at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and writer/director Talya Lavie won the prestigious Nora Ephron Prize. (Per TFF: “With our Nora Ephron Prize, we hope to not only honor this amazing woman, but also to inspire a new generation of female writers and directors.”) Then, in August 2014, Zero Motivation received twelve Ophir Award nominations ("the Israeli Oscar") from the Israel Film Academy, and in September 2014, it won six Ophirs (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Casting, Best Editing, and Best Music).

So what makes Zero Motivation so special? On the most basic level, Zero Motivation is a hilarious look at the role of women in the Israeli military, rightly compared to Robert Altman’s much-loved black comedy M*A*S*H. But dig deeper, and it is also an insightful peek into the current state of Israeli society as a whole, as well as an even more universal look at the role of women in most of today’s “advanced” Western democracies.

The story unfolds in three chapters (“The Replacement,” “The Virgin,” and “The Commander”), with bookended Prologue and Epilogue segments.

In the Prologue, we meet our main character, “Zohar,” (brilliantly played by Best Actress Ophir winner Dana Ivgy), who is waiting at a crowded bus stop for her BFF “Daffi.” (Daffi is played with equal brilliance by Nelly Tagar, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Ophir. Ironically, Tagar lost out to none other than Ivgy who, in addition, received the Best Supporting Actress Ophir for her role in another film called Next to Her. Next to Her played in our 2014 Chicago International Film Festival and will likely play in our 2015 CFIC as well.) They are on their way back to a remote military base presumably somewhere in the Negev.

Quick-witted Zohar manages to grab two seats, ferociously saving one for lackadaisical Daffi (who is soon napping comfortably on Zohar’s shoulder). But suddenly the bus stops and everyone must get out and transfer to another bus. In the ensuing scramble, Zohar and Daffi are pushed back by the huge throng of male soldiers surrounding them, and the two young women are left standing in the aisle with miles and miles of desert still to traverse. As tiny Daffi reaches for and swings from the strap high above her head, one wonders if any of the guys aboard will think to offer his seat to “a lady”? Answer: Nope, not in this man’s army!

In the epilogue, Zohar boards a new bus, one that is cool and empty and ready to spirit her away from the base to whatever the future has in store for her.

Plot points in the chapters in between are primarily carried by three more actresses: Shani Klein as “Rama” (the head of Administration), Dana Minerat as “Anat” (the head of Education), and Tamara Klingon as “Irena” (a Russian immigrant who works in the same office as Zohar and Daffi and also bunks in the same room). Of course, there are many men in this mix playing commanders, soldiers, and paratroopers, but they all have relatively minor roles in the overall story of a small group of women who push paper for, bring coffee to, and otherwise service the needs of the very large group of muscular men in uniform who run the base.

How can this be funny? Seeing is believing, so trust me on this: By the time Zohar and Daffi circle each other with staple guns as if they were Wyatt Earp and Ike Clanton at the OK Corral, you’ll be laughing through your tears.

Zero Motivation opens today at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. Follow this link for schedule information:

For more on Zero Motivation from the Jewish perspective, read the post on my Second City Tzivi blog.

For more on Zero Motivation from the Feminist perspective, read the post on my blog The Hot Pink Pen.

  Zero Motivation bus

Top Photo: Dana Ivgy as “Zohar” at her Mail Clerk desk.

Bottom Photo: “Daffi” (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar on their way back to the base.


Photo Credits: © Yaron Scharf/Zeigeist Films

Tzivi reviews Listen Up Philip

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For Jewish fans of novelist Philip Roth, Listen Up Philip arrives in our art house theatres like an early Hanukkah gift. Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry not only signals his intention right up front in the title, he also calls his lead character "Philip Lewis Friedman." 

But true to his Rothian roots, Perry then mixes up the identities a bit, adding a mentor named Ike Zimmerman and introducing both Zimmerman and his work through a hilarious montage of book covers, all of which look like the covers of actual Philip Roth books. (For aficionados like me, the stylized Roth covers are as unmistakable as the Windsor font Woody Allen always uses for his film title and credit lines.)

Of course, you don't have to know all the details of the life and loves of Philip Roth in order to enjoy Listen Up Philip. It stands on its own as a black comedy about trying to make it as a serious writer in the era of noxious "self-branding." But the more you know, the funnier it is. And I suspect most Jewish readers-most of whom are devoted consumers of contemporary culture-will have absorbed a great deal of the necessary background already, if only by osmosis.

When we first meet Philip (a role seemingly made-to-measure for actor Jason Schwartzman and perfectly crafted around his persona), he has completed his second novel and he is working on his third. So we follow Philip as he is instructed in the mechanics of the business of publishing: Here is a list of your photo shoots; here is the itinerary for your book tour; here are snippets of the reviews of your second novel that will soon appear in major publications.

Philip has a meltdown. Offered sanctuary by his idol "Ike Zimmerman" (Jonathan Pryce), Philip stomps out of his publisher's office, packs a few bags at the Brooklyn home he shares with his longtime girlfriend "Ashley Kane" (Elisabeth Moss), and heads off to Zimmerman's country retreat for the summer. Then Zimmerman arranges an adjunct position for him at a local college, and Philip tells Ashley he will be staying through the fall.

As the plot unfolds, Eric Bogosian provides the unseen voice of a wise, omniscient narrator who sees all, knows all, and adds the erudite perspective that Roth himself might contribute if he were the one actually telling this story. Thus Philip, Ike, and Ashley come to exist not just as themselves on screen and in "real time," they also become characters in a cinematic Philip Roth "homage novel."

Without giving away any of the details, let me just say that Philip Lewis Friedman is intended to be one of the winners in the 21st Century culture wars, just as Philip Roth was himself a winner in the 20th Century culture wars. The narrator specifically tells us that Philip Lewis Friedman will achieve his goals as an author. But the open question is what this success will cost both men-both Philip Lewis Friedman and Philip Milton Roth-as people.

Perry's great accomplishment in Listen Up Philip is to address the delicate issue of misogyny from the perspective of a young man coming of age in the Millennial Generation. I just entered "Philip Roth + misogyny" into Google and got 20,600 results in .28 seconds, so I did not invent this topic. It has been there for most of my life and for all of Perry's life. Roth turned 80 last year and this year he announced his retirement, so there is nothing more he can do about any of this. Roth's "woman problem" now belongs to his literary heirs, and Perry-who turned 30 in July-is clearly up to the challenge.

Like Philip Roth, Ike Zimmerman expected women to be a certain way. We don't know how this worked out for Ike in his own romantic, sexual, or marital life, but we do learn quite a bit about how Ike's daughter "Melanie Zimmerman" (Krysten Ritter) feels about all of this. She tells Ike, she tells Philip, and she tells the world in her book A Daughter's Point of View: A Memoir of My Father which deliberately mocks the title of one of Ike's books (A Woman's Point of View) and also invokes My Life as Man, which is supposedly  one of the Roth novels that triggered  ex-wife  Claire Bloom's notorious memoir Leaving a Doll's House: A Memoir. (From the Amazon page for My Life as Man: "At its heart lies the marriage of Peter and Maureen Tarnopol, a gifted young writer and the woman who wants to be his muse but who instead is his nemesis.")

But enough inside baseball. Suffice it to say that Ike Zimmerman's relationships with women have been disastrous, so what does the future hold in store for Philip Lewis Friedman? From the sympathy with which Perry creates the "Ashley" character (Elisabeth Moss), the "Melanie" character (Krysten Ritter), and the character of "Yvette Dussart" (Joséphine de La Baume)-a professor Phillip meets at the college-we can be sure that Perry knows his own life as a man will follow different rules.

For more photos and links, visit my Blog post on\

To see all the book jackets for Listen Up Philip-brilliantly designed for Perry by Teddy Blanks-follow THIS LINK to Slate.

Listen Up Philip opens today at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. Click HERE for schedule information. It is also available On Demand.


Top Photo: Jason Schwartzman as Philip Lewis Friedman.
Bottom Photo: Jonathan Pryce and Jason Schwartzman.
Photo Credits: Shawn Bannon and Wendy George/Tribecca Films

Ophir update & CFIC ’14 sneak peek

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Two short weeks ago, when I wrote my article about the 2014 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema for the October issue of the JUF News, I made a prediction. I said: "My bet is that by the time you read this, Zero Motivation will have won the Ophir Award for Best Film, which will automatically make it Israel's candidate for Best Foreign Language Film in the next international awards cycle."

Readers, I was wrong. Zero Motivation did indeed win many Ophir Awards on Sept. 21 including Best Director and Best Screenplay (Talya Lavie) and Best Actress (Dana Ivgy), but the Ophir Award for Best Picture (aka "the Israeli Oscar") went to Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.

Gett is the third film in a trilogy written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Elkabetz also stars in the lead role of "Viviane Amsalem," a woman from a large Moroccan-Israeli family who has been separated from her husband for years but is unable to obtain a "Gett" (a Jewish writ of divorce).

Perhaps you saw Shivah (the second film in the trilogy) when I did? I named it one of my "Highly Recommended Features" in CFIC '09. And after I saw Shivah, I went online to find a copy of the first film To Take a Wife. Both DVDs are now available on Amazon and both are excellent.

Ronit Elkabetz is probably best known to American audiences for her roles in Late Marriage (2001) and The Band's Visit (2007). She is also well-known in France for her roles in films like The Girl on the Train (2009). In this year's Ophir contest for Best Actress, Elkabetz went head-to-head with Dana Ivgy, the star of Zero Motivation. Ironically, Ivgy also won in 2004 when she played Elkabetz's daughter in Or Mon Tresor (a film which brought writer/director Keren Yedaya multiple awards at Cannes and elsewhere).

Although I am surprised by this outcome, I am by no means disappointed. In the words of Hannah Brown of the Jerusalem Post: "It was the year of the woman at the Ophir Awards… as two films by and about the specific problems of Israeli women - and the universal issues of women everywhere - captured the lion's share of the major awards."

Unfortunately Gett is not part of this year's CFIC line-up. But distribution rights have already been acquired by Chicago's hometown Indie heroes Music Box Films, so it will likely be available soon.

Perhaps the CFIC committee will decide to show the whole trilogy-To Take a Wife, Shivah, and Gett-in CFIC '15. If so, I hope they invite me to lead the Q&A!

Here is my list of CFIC '14 Top Picks. More information will be available in print (in the October issue of the JUF News) and online (in the Arts & Entertainment section). Full reviews of each of these films-plus additional CFIC '14 related features-will be available on my Blog Second City Tzivi.

  • New Filmmakers: Talya Lavie (Zero Motivation)
  • New Stars: Keren Berger (A Place in Heaven and Cupcakes)
  • Best Feature Film = TIE = A Place in Heaven and Zero Motivation
  • Best Actor: Alon Abuttul in A Place in Heaven
  • Best Actress: Anat Waxman in Cupcakes
  • Best Supporting Actor: Patrick Stewart in Hunting Elephants
  • Best Supporting Actress: Rotem Zussman-Cohen in A Place in Heaven
  • Best Documentary Film over 60 Minutes: Above and Beyond
  • Best Documentary Film under 60 Minutes: The Women Pioneers

Order your tickets now. CFIC '14 is going to be a great film festival!

Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Courtesy of Music Box Films)
Bottom Photo: Dana Ivgy in Zero Motivation (Courtesy of CFIC)

Tzivi reviews The German Doctor

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Most people accept the reality of the Holocaust as a historical fact in all its quantitative enormity. Most people accept the fact that approximately six million Jews were murdered all across Europe, and that a large proportion of these individual men, women, and children met their end by gas in one of several death camps. Most people accept all of this, but even today, seventy years later, some people do not. And in the decades immediately after World War II, many people all around the world simply refused to acknowledge what had happened.

The German Doctor is set in 1961 in Bariloche, a resort town on the Argentinian side of the Andes, just across the border from Chile. In this far away paradise, people don't pretend that what happened in Europe never happened, but they do deny its significance. There is a large German population in this town and the Germans in Bariloche are proudly German. They send their children to schools where the primary language is German, and they think the Allied victory was a trick. There is also an exclusive sanatorium on a secluded lake on the outskirts of town where people who need refuge can relax in the embrace of understanding, and people who want new identities can schedule plastic surgery procedures.

Into this mix comes a mysterious man, a german doctor. But Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo (who directed and also wrote the screenplay) plants clues from the very beginning leaving no doubt that this man is actually Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele ("the Angel of Death"), the monster who performed unspeakable experiments at Auschwitz and who often made personal decisions about who would "go left" and who would "go right" when new transports arrived.

Unlike Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele was never brought to justice, and in fact, the capture of Eichmann is a major plot thread. (Remember, The German Doctor is set in 1961, which is the year Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires and taken to Israel for a public trial.) When Mengele finally died in Brazil, his body was exhumed and his identity was confirmed. Watching The German Doctor, his ability to elude the Israelis finally makes sense. He was protected by an ex-pat German community that considered him a hero.

The German Doctor is told from the point of view of a 12-year old girl named "Lilith" (Florencia Bado). Lilith is the daughter of a "Eva" (Natalia Oreiro) and "Enzo" (Diego Peretti). Eva was raised in one of the finest Bariloche hotels and she went to the German school. Then she married Enzo (Diego Peretti), a Spanish-speaking man with no ties of his own to German ethnic pride. When the film begins, Eva has convinced Enzo to return to Bariloche because her mother has just died and left ownership of the hotel to her. Enzo is not keen on this plan, but he has clearly had trouble supporting his growing family. Lilith is a middle child. She has an older brother and a younger brother, and Eva is now pregnant with twins. On a lonely Patagonia road on their way to Bariloche, they meet the german doctor. Eva takes to him immediately because he is handsome and obviously well to do. Enzo is wary but powerless to protest.

The doctor is equally fascinated by this family. Twins studies were one of Mengele's greatest interests (as students of the Holocaust know only too well). But his eye is on Lilith, a tiny girl with physical deficiencies who was born between two brothers who are "perfect specimens." The doctor convinces Enzo to let him stay in the hotel even though it is not quite ready yet. Enzo is reluctant but needs the money. Meanwhile others in town, those who had hoped to host this honored new guest, are miffed.

The plot itself is part thriller and part melodrama, but what holds it all together is a pitch perfect performance by Alex Brendermuhl, This Mengele is all he must be: enormously intelligent, icy cold, preternaturally astute, someone who had the charisma and connections required to become one of the greatest villains of the 20th Century.

In the "dog days" of August, it's hard to tell you to spend a summer night watching a movie about Josef Mengele. The newest films by Woody Allen and Lasse Halstrom are both charming. I have seen them, so I know.

But if you go to see The German Doctor, I can promise you that you will leave the theater with a greater understanding of the ineffable than you had when you entered. 

The German Doctor opens on Friday, August 15 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For complete details, visit:

The read my complete review of The German Doctor, visit:


Tzivi reviews the new Killing Kasztner DVD

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In the midst of all our worries about Gaza comes the long-awaited DVD version of Gaylen Ross' fascinating documentary Killing Kasztner about a Hungarian man who was said to have "sold his soul to the Devil" because he negotiated with the Nazis to save Jewish lives.

"Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust have been recognized very late at Yad Vashem, and they're not recognized at all in America," Gaylen Ross told me, when I interviewed her in 2009 just before Killing Kasztner's first Chicago screening at the Music Box Theatre. "Many Jewish rescuers had no guns, but they were forging documents, smuggling, doing all sorts of things to save lives."

Rezso Kasztner was a leading member of a Zionist rescue group in Budapest when the Germans occupied Hungary in March, 1944. This was late in the War, the Germans were clearly losing, and in a sudden about face, Adolf Eichmann offered to negotiate. His goal? Sell Hungarian Jews to the Allies in exchange for cash and supplies. 

After the war, Kasztner made aliyah, but once in Israel, he was condemned as a collaborator. In Killing Kasztner, Ross forces us to confront the paradox of negotiation, an urgent issue that is just as relevant today as it was in 1944. How do we know if we've crossed the line from "negotiation" to "appeasement"? Is this just a debate for historians after the fact? Can a man like Kasztner, acting in the role of a negotiator, ever be considered "a hero" or a "role model" for others?

Some of my colleagues have written about Killing Kasztner as if it were merely an apologia for a long forgotten figure from the final days of the Holocaust, but that was not the film I saw, and I am sure that was never Ross' intention. "What do we do with our negotiators?" Ross asks. "We condemn them before they even get to the table!" 

We already know what happens in the absence of negotiation. But Rezso Kasztner's daughter Zsuzsi, a woman who was excoriated as a child because her father dared to stand face-to-face with monsters, begs us to consider new possibilities: "The concept of heroism," she says, "It is not always at the end of the barrel of the gun."

Note that Ross has created many "Bonus Features" for the DVD. In addition to disc one (her original 2-hour documentary), there is now a Disc Two which contains extended one-on-one interviews with many of her sources, as well as panel discussions recorded at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Touro Law School, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Click here to order Killing Kasztner on DVD
Click here to read my original review of Killing Kasztner from 2009.
Click here to read my award-winning interview with Gaylen Ross.

Photos of Rezso Kasztner and survivors of the "Kasztner Train" courtesy of Gaylen Ross and Zsuzsi Kasztner Michaeli.