A meticulously researched biodoc, “It Is No Dream” focuses on how Austro-Hungarian journalist-playwright Theodor Herzl catalyzed the political Zionist movement, ultimately leading to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Helmer-writer Richard Trank (“Against the Tide”) draws on his subject’s diaries, correspondence and publications as well as other historical materials to edifying effect, but the lack of exciting visuals makes this docu one of Moriah Films’ more dryly didactic dips into Jewish history. Best suited to fests, broadcast and educational ancillary, the conventionally shot and assembled pic is receiving a limited theatrical rollout.
Born in 1860 in Budapest to traditional but assimilated Jewish parents, Herzl dreamed of becoming a successful playwright but underwent a transformative experience while serving as the Paris-based foreign correspondent for the Austrian paper Neue Freie Presse and reporting on the anti-Semitism that roiled the French political and military scene. The trial, conviction and degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, with French crowds screaming “Death to the Jew,” profoundly focused Herzl’s thinking on the Jewish question. He became convinced that the only answer was the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the biblical homeland of his people.
After laying out his ideas in the book “The Jewish State,” Herzl found support among European intellectuals and some religious leaders. Although the Jewish aristocracy he hoped to receive funds from did not respond positively, a grassroots movement of oppressed Jews from Russia, Poland and much of Eastern Europe embraced his plans.
Using his own money, Herzl created the World Zionist Organization, which hundreds of thousands joined; launched the Zionist newspaper the World; and organized the first World Zionist Congress in 1897. He also spent considerable time traveling around Europe, meeting with kings, prime ministers, ambassadors, the Turkish sultan, the pope and government ministers from Constantinople to St. Petersburg, in order to facilitate immigration and gain legal rights to the land.
Helmer Trank deserves kudos for trying to convey this complicated history with primary materials. Among the most fascinating are a letter from Freud to Herzl and newsreel footage of Herzl’s trip to Palestine; among the most powerful are photographs of the devastation wrought by the Kishinev pogrom in Moldova. But given that he has a limited number of period photos (the same shots of the principal figures seem to pan at a glacial pace every 20 minutes) and minimal archival footage, he relies heavily on huge passages of narration, well spoken by Ben Kingsley; the knowledgeable assertions of Robert S. Wistrich, an anti-Semitism scholar at the Hebrew U. of Jerusalem; and often flat readings of relevant historical documents by a voice cast, led by Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) as Herzl.
Missing from the film is a strong sense of the Zionist movement prior to Herzl, and obviously, one should look elsewhere for the an Arab point of view. On a technical level, the newly shot footage (mostly architecture in Paris, Austria, Turkey and Switzerland) to show the places Herzl lived in and visited mixes awkwardly with the archival material, creating a schizophrenic visual tone; likewise, the sound effects added to jazz up the narration prove jarring.
Israeli president Shimon Peres turns up at the beginning and end of the film, attesting to Herzl’s importance to Israel and to his own family. A more surprising oncamera appearance comes from Swiss producer Arthur Cohn, who commemorates his grandfather, the chief rabbi of Basel, one of Herzl’s important supporters.
The title refers to a line in Herzl’s final book, “Old New Land”: “If you will it, it is no dream,” a phrase that became a popular slogan of the Zionist movement.