Yet another compelling Holocaust-survivor story preserved through interview and archival sources, “The Jewess and the Captain” is a docu whose lingering impact is both forceful and ambivalent. There are a number of questions left unanswered here, some due to obscured history, some due to pic’s inconsistently focused organization of narrative and thematic strands. Still, the material is fascinating enough to interest broadcast, fest and educational outlets.
Born to a German-Jewish shopkeeping family too poor to flee abroad as Nazi-regime laws gradually stripped away their rights, Ilse Stein was just 17 in late ’41 when she was shipped to a ghetto in occupied Russia’s Minsk. There, her good looks attracted the attention of middle-aged administration officer Willi Schulz. He employed her as an office worker and, seemingly “changed completely” by love (though he already had a wife back in Germany), took Schlindler-esque risks protecting Ilse and others when pogroms were imminent.
Nazi brass soon sniffed inappropriate pro-Jewish sympathies. Just one day before his scheduled transfer, Schulz took a truck containing 25 adult prisoners (including Ilse and her two sisters) into the countryside on an alleged firewood-gathering expedition; when the real plan became clear, he forced the driver onward at gunpoint. Most escapees immediately joined local resistance efforts; Schulz and “wife” Ilse were sent to Moscow, the former court-martialed for treason in absentia by the Nazis.
Though this story is heroic, and one would expect the couple to be embraced by Soviet authorities, they were instead cruelly separated shortly thereafter. Schulz was thrown into a POW camp’s “anti-fascist education” program; medical reports claim he died of heart failure, on New Year’s Eve 1944. Now pregnant, Stein was shipped to Siberia, where she fell ill; her child died at three months. One of pic’s most powerful moments is when Ilse admits this was perhaps her “worst time” of all, even more so than in Minsk, where “Death was close to us every day … (so) we were used to it.”
Just after war’s end, she married a local man; their wedlock lasted decades, bringing children and grandchildren (despite the husband’s constant weak health) , yet was evidently more a pragmatic than romantic union. Provocative questions arise toward film’s end that are never directly addressed: Did this marriage ever really engage her? Or did Ilse remain in love with Schulz? Despite decades lived in easternmost Russia, she announced at nearly 70 years old her eagerness to move to Israel, or back to Germany; yet husband and children detained her. Sadly, Stein died after a gallstone operation in 1993, never realizing those dreams — or answering the riddles above.
It’s also unclear here whether she knew that the story of “the Jewess and the Nazi Captain” had evidently long achieved legendary status among Russian historical tomes. Was she herself forced into anonymity, or did she invite it? Did she reinvent herself as an “ordinary Russian” (including family Christmas celebrations) in response to Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies, or to escape bitter memories?
Subject crisply recalls her wartime travails. But either she wasn’t forthcoming about some related emotional issues, or helmer Ulf von Mechow didn’t pursue them. Either way, result leaves the narrative somewhat unsatisfying.
Telling its story semi-chronologically, pic cuts together disparate elements — including photos chronicling Ilse’s family history and Minsk imprisonment — to engrossing effect, yet it’s not always clear whether we’re looking at material specific to this saga or more generally representative. Besides interviews (largely of Stein and a fellow female escapee, who remembers things slightly differently), docu includes extensive footage from a moving return visit to Minsk by survivors, arranged by Russian authorities willing to publicly acknowledge this home-soil Nazi horror for the first time 50 years after it occurred.
Shifting constantly between a larger picture and Stein’s personal tragedy, pic doesn’t fully limn either. (Latter could surely provide basis for strong screen dramatization.) Perhaps longer running time would have afforded more thorough exploration of the various ambiguities left here. That said, editing and pacing are expert, other tech credits sound. Feature also exists in a 60 -minute broadcast form.