Review: ‘Hitler, Stalin and I’

"Hitler, Stalin and I" is a remarkable story of life-long survival and optimism in the face of violence and despair. Pic's recent win in Pilsen's first-ever docu competition will propel it to general and specialized fests alike; though too short to have a theatrical presence a la "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," cablers are sure to call, with brisk ancillary to follow.

“Hitler, Stalin and I” is a remarkable story of life-long survival and optimism in the face of violence and despair. Pic’s recent win in Pilsen’s first-ever docu competition will propel it to general and specialized fests alike; though too short to have a theatrical presence a la “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” (which it vaguely resembles in general subject matter and structure), cablers are sure to call, with brisk ancillary to follow.

Seen in contempo interview footage, usually in tight close-up by d.p. Vlastimil Hamernik (and prompted during interviews by vet docu helmer Helena Trestikova), author/survivor Heda Margoliusova-Kovaly seems serene and dignified, the very picture of a poised, aristocratic pensioner. Then she begins her story: “Evil is never infinite,” she says in measured tones, “someone always survives. . . You have to think ‘I won’t give up.'”

Interview and chilling newsreel footage of atrocities bring Margoliusova-Kovaly’s story to life: Her combination of determination and luck renders her almost matter-of-factly told tale extraordinary.

In the 1930s, Heda Blochova enjoyed a fine life as the daughter of a Jewish founder of a Prague-based metal gadget factory. Around time of her 1939 marriage to lawyer Rudolf Margolius, two-thirds of Czechoslovakia was annexed by the man her father called “a midget in a dirty trench coat” — Adolf Hitler. The young couple, along with the groom’s family, were shipped to Poland’s Lodz Ghetto.

In one of many sequences reminiscent of “The Pianist,” Margoliusova-Kovaly remembers both bleak hardship and the sweet music of her fellow detainees that inspired the prisoners’ will to live.

As the advancing Russians put pressure on the Nazis, Margoliusova-Kovaly was shipped from Lodz to Auschwitz, where she briefly encountered the infamous Dr. Mengele. The very last person loaded aboard a transport train, she encountered a series of difficulties before getting back to Prague at war’s end.

Reunited with her husband — each was the only survivor from their respective families — life was once again back on track until Margolius took a high-ranking Socialist post, provoking deep philosophical differences between them. In 1951, her husband was one of 14 innocent defendants hanged in the notorious Slansky show trial. A pariah after that, she remarried in 1956 and translated the work of Steinbeck, Chandler and others under her new married name of Kovaly.

Since 1974, Trestikova has made docus on the evolving place of women in society. In Margoliusova-Kovaly (who penned the 1997 memoir “Under a Cruel Star: Life in Prague 1941. . .1968”), she’s found a composed, eloquent yet spunky subject whose quietly upbeat nature is inspirational and infectious.

Tech credits are smooth. Pic carries a 2001 copyright date; a newer docu about nurses, part of Trestikova’s ongoing “Women on the Verge of the Millennium” series, also screened at the Pilsen fest.

Hitler, Stalin and I

Czech Republic

Production

A Czech TV, Studio Cas production. (International sales, Czech TV, Prague.) Produced by Karl Dvorak, Michael Trestik. Directed, written by Helena Trestikova.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W, Betacam), Vlastimil Hamernik; editor, Zdenek Patocka; sound, Jan Valouch. Reviewed at Finale Pilsen Film Festival (competing), April 2, 2003. Running time: 56 MIN.
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