Ambitious but ungainly docu "Killing Kasztner" delves into the complex history of Budapest lawyer Israel Kasztner.

Ambitious but ungainly docu “Killing Kasztner,” from American helmer Gaylen Ross, delves into the complex history of Budapest lawyer Israel Kasztner, who saved more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews by negotiating with Adolf Eichmann. Kasztner moved to Palestine in 1947 and was murdered by Israeli rightwing extremists 10 years later. His story also catalyzes a provocative examination of what defines a hero in Israel. Unfortunately, extraneous detail drags out the DV-shot pic’s running time and diminishes its overall impact. Some trims would make it more appealing to natural audience of Jewish fests and pubcasters.

Although numerically speaking, the rescue train Kasztner organized repped the largest single deliverance of Jews during the Holocaust, his legacy was long neglected because he was branded a collaborator due to his dealings with the Nazis. When he sued his accusers of libel, a 1954 Israeli court judged he “sold his soul to the devil.” That ruling ultimately marked him for death by a shadowy right-wing group that hoped to bring down the government of David Ben-Gurion, for whom Kasztner was working.

Showing that Kasztner’s killers were regarded as heroes in some quarters while Kasztner’s life-saving deeds went uncelebrated sparks discussion of the nature of heroism in the newborn Jewish state, particularly its lack of nuance. As one interviewee wryly notes, “In Israel, a hero carried a gun in his hand, not his hat.”

While cramming in snippets from an oversized cast of characters and a mixed bag of archival materials, Ross lets Kasztner’s daughter Zsuzsi and granddaughters argue his case. Historical background comes from journalist Uri Avnery and a few Israeli professors. Primary rep of the Kasztner-as-traitor p.o.v. is his convicted murderer Ze’ev Eckstein.

The participation of Eckstein (in his first on-camera interview about the crime) marks one of pic’s coups, but also a weak spot. Ross is so determined to be Eckstein’s “essential echo” that she seems to include every little thing he said.

Making herself part of the tale, Ross (who also provides the voiceover narration) instigates a number of artificial-feeling moments. And as a finale, there’s an awkward face-to-face between Zsuzi and Eckstein.

Frequently cutting away from storylines just before they peak and returning to them too much later, odd editing/structural choices never let the pic build up a satisfying head of steam. Overall look is just slightly better than homevideo.

Killing Kasztner

Production

A DocFactory, GR Films production. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Andrew Cohen, Gaylen Ross, Noam Shalev, Gus D. Samios, Anne Feinsilber. Executive producer, Tony Tabatznik. Directed by Gaylen Ross. Written by Ross, Andrew Cohen.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Robert Richman, Roni Kaldaron, Yoav Kosh, Boaz Estai; editors, Gaylen Ross, Andrew Ford, Laure Sullivan; music, Blake Leyh; sound (Dolby Digital); sound (Dolby Digital), Moti Hefetz, Ravid Biran; associate producers, Omry Maoz, Efrat Suzin, Julmary Zumbrano. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 10, 2008. Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Ze'ev Eckstein, Zsuzsi Kasztner, Merav Michaeli, Michal Michaeli, Keren Michaeli, Uri Avneri. (English, Hebrew dialogue)

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