It Is No Dream, a new documentary about the life of Theodor Herzl, opens locally today at the Wilmette Theatre after runs in New York and LA. Written and directed by Richard Trank (who received a Best Documentary Oscar for The Long Way Home in 1998), It Is No Dream offers the viewer a somewhat schizophrenic experience. While the story is fascinating, the storytelling is painfully pedantic.
In just under ten years (from 1895 to 1904), an urbane Viennese dilettante transformed himself from a Biblical prophet banging on the doors of Europe's wealthiest Jews to the leader of a new organization that overtime lead to the creation of a new state.
In a speech directed to the Rothschild Family Council in 1896, Herzl warned them in the most urgent terms about the coming apocalypse:
"Your fortune will be expropriated and like all Jews you will be expelled from some countries. And in those where we seek refuge, they will kill us. I bring you the salvation."
The Rothschilds wanted none of it, but less than two years later, 200 participants from seventeen countries attended the first congress of the Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland. When it was over, Herzl wrote in his diary:
"Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it."
Trank opens his film by recounting the infamous trial of French Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1895. Herzl attended the trial as Paris correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Neue Freie Presse. At first Herzl, like most others, believed Dreyfus was guilty, but as the trial proceeded, his doubts grew. However, what seems to have galvanized him was not the trial itself, but the chanting mobs outside his hotel room. The Jewish editors of Neue Freie Presse were so alarmed by Herzl's reports that they changed "Death to the Jews," first to "Death to the Judas," and then "Death to the Traitors."
But after this riveting introduction, Trank slips back into a conventional chronology, taking us slowly but surely from Herzl's infancy step by step until we are finally back to 1895. Then all the really important questions are compressed in the rush from the Dreyfus Trial to Herzl's early death in 1904 at the age of 44.
Trank tells us that a friend who read the draft text of the speech to the Rothschilds worried that Herzl's family would think he had had a nervous breakdown. But somehow this man with absolutely no prior organizational experience quickly rallied to become the leader of thousands.
Just over one hundred years later, we now know that both Herzl predictions quoted were correct, but what accounts for such a dramatic and truly historic personal transformation?
Trank's narrative is carried by three voices. The most prominent one belongs to Ben Kingsley who dutifully reads the script prepared for him by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier (founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center).
Quotes from Herzl are read by Christoph Waltz (who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar a few years back in the role of Nazi officer "Hans Landa" in Quentin Tarantino's film Inglorious Basterds). Some of my fellow film critics consider this an ironic choice, but I had no trouble hearing Herzl's words in Waltz's erudite German-inflected English.
Sporadic historical commentary is also provided by Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University, who is head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
Me, I think Herzl deserves better, but for now something is better than nothing. So go see It Is No Dream this week. I guarantee you will learn a great deal.
Here are the posted show times at the Wilmette Theatre:
8/24 (Fri): 4:45, 7:10
8/25 (Sat): 2:30, 4:45, 7:10
8/26 (Sun): 7:10
8/27 (Mon): 2:30, 4:45, 7:10
8/28 (Tues): 2:30, 4:45, 7:10
8/29 (Wed): 4:45
The Wilmette Theatre is located at 1122 Central Ave; Wilmette, IL 60091.
For more details, visit: www.wilmettetheatre.com.