A feisty Holocaust survivor stirs international controversy by “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” in an impressively polished documentary by Bob Hercules and Cheri Hughes. Perhaps even more thought-provoking than its co-helmers intended, pic is bound to spark conversations and debate wherever it is aired or exhibited. Publicity generated during global fest exposure could lead to theatrical and non-commercial playdates.
Docu details a stranger-than-fiction true-life story that will strike many viewers as affecting — and many others as outrageous. Eva Mozes Kor and her sister Miriam were among the “Mengele twins,” siblings who were used as human guinea pigs by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in the Auschwitz death camp during World War II. They also were among the fortunate few who lived long enough to be freed by Russian Army liberators.
But the nightmare didn’t end when they walked out of the camp. Decades after Eva moved to the U.S. with her husband (another Holocaust survivor) to begin a new life, she continued to feel imprisoned by memories of the horrors she witnessed and endured.
In 1993, Miriam died in Israel, apparently due to side-effects of the experiments performed upon her in the death camp. (Pic pointedly notes that records of Mengele’s experiments have never been found.) The loss of her sister proved to be a tipping point for Eva.
Determined to liberate herself — “I don’t want to be a victim for the rest of my days!” she says with typical blunt-spoken candor — she publicly announced on the 50th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation that she would “forgive” all Nazis. And, yes, she would even extend that forgiveness to Mengele himself.
Ever since, Eva has always insisted she is speaking only for herself whenever she announces her credo: “Forgive your worst enemy — it will heal your soul and it will set you free.” Predictably, however, her statements have been widely criticized — and, in some cases, vehemently attacked — by others who endured similar Nazi horrors.
As pic follows Eva through her subsequent avocations as lecturer, activist and historian — she established a Holocaust museum in her adopted home town of Terre Haute, Ind. — filmmakers provide dramatic counterpoint to her message of reconciliation. Historians, academics and Holocaust survivors describe her as dangerously naive at best, willfully self-aggrandizing at worse. One scholar dismisses her international celebrity as an attention-grabbing ploy for “cheap grace.”
Inadvertently or otherwise, co-helmers Hercules and Pugh occasionally make a case for Eva’s most outspoken critics by trying too hard — showing her in carefully composed, all-too-obviously staged bridging sequences. There are far too many shots of her looking wistfully melancholy as she strolls through what remains of the Auschwitz death camp.
On the other hand, filmmakers are honest enough to include indications that, as saintly as Eva might appear to some, she’s only human after all. She’s amusing and unabashedly proud of her success in Terre Haute as a real estate salesperson. And, she isn’t entirely ready to extend “forgiveness” to everyone: She’s conspicuously reserved in her response to Palestinians who feel oppressed by Israel.