‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ Film Review: Claude Lanzmann’s Final Holocaust Documentary Features Improbable Survivors

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They aren’t sisters in a familial sense. But Ruth Elias, Ada Lichtman, Hanna Marton, and Paula Biren share a terrible kinship: They are the only people from their respective families to survive the Nazi Holocaust. In “Shoah: Four Sisters,” the latest and last film from director Claude Lanzmann — the man behind the 1985 landmark documentary “Shoah,” who died earlier this year at 92 — they speak directly, and steadily, explaining the various, harrowing routes taken to escape with their lives.

Presented in four discrete, non-chronological sections, “Four Sisters” begins with its longest interview, “The Hippocratic Oath,” in which Ruth Elias describes in exacting detail the many ways she narrowly evaded death, from hiding among girls she suspected would be spared for their looks, to removing her yellow star and posing as a non-Jewish Czech with no papers, to a horrifying encounter with Josef Mengele himself that left her newborn child dead.

Ada Lichtman tells a story of timing and luck. After seeing family members killed in Poland, she was transported to a camp in the village of Sobibór, where she explains that she simply waited to die (“We never even imagined staying alive.”) before being chosen at random for a job in the camp laundry, where she was then given her next occupation: sewing clothes for dolls that were confiscated from the camp’s children. Once cleaned and an outfitted — sometimes in tiny SS uniforms that she made — they were then given to the children of Nazi officers.

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In the film’s final two interviews, survivor guilt rears its head, as both Hungarian lawyer Hanna Marton and Polish doctor Paula Biren recount stories of opportunities taken in order to live. Marton, whose husband worked with Rudolf Kasztner, head of Aid and Rescue Committee for Jewish refugees in Hungary, secured a spot for himself and Marton on a special list of people who would bypass death camps on a train bound for Switzerland. The 1,684 lucky ones were the result of negotiations by Kasztner with Adolf Eichmann and each spot cost $1,000. As she tells her story, Marton acknowledges and reckons with the privilege that saved her.

Meanwhile, in the Jewish ghetto called Baluty in the Polish city of Lodz, 18-year-old Paula Biren took an administrative job with a women’s police force that was instructed to keep “moral order.” To that end, Jewish black-market street peddlers were arrested and deported to camps. Shocked to learn that her participation in the force was aiding in the destruction of other Jewish people, she was threatened with deportation herself if she quit. Soon afterward, she was sent to Auschwitz all the same.

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In keeping with the aesthetic of stillness created with “Shoah” and the companion documentaries that followed in its wake (“A Visitor from the Living,” “The Last of the Unjust,” and “Sobibór, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” among others), “Four Sisters” is intimate, somber, and reserved, refusing to pass judgment even as Lanzmann soberly digs for unvarnished details, and resisting pathos as its women patiently recount the events that tore apart their young lives.

Tears come, but silently, usually in mid-story, never breaking the narrative. And Lanzmann’s camera tends to remain fixed in place, closing in to study the faces of the interviewed, but never to exploit their pain. The approximately 270-minute running time becomes a hushed demand for the viewer to sit with historical cruelty and listen as its victims teach to the future, its effect a cumulative cry of warning for today.

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There will come a moment when the last survivor is gone (Biren, the youngest here, died in 2016 at the age of 94), and all that will be left are living records like this. And sadly, the film’s U.S. release could hardly be more timely. The country that fought against the Nazis is now run by a president who happily endorses putting asylum seekers into detention camps and their children in literal cages, one who courts white nationalists, one in whom neo-Nazis have found a powerful ally.

He will not pay attention to this film’s existence, but it’s here anyway, quietly and powerfully reminding anyone who cares to listen that history already knows what comes when fascism festers unchecked.

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‘Operation Finale’ Film Review: Strong Ensemble Infuses Passion Into Conventional Retelling of Adolf Eichmann’s Capture

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Ben Kingsley has embodied Jewish heroes as iconic as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (“Murderers Among Us”), Anne Frank’s father Otto (“Anne Frank: The Whole Story”), and businessman Itzhak Stern (“Schindler’s List”). In “Operation Finale,” he adopts another perspective altogether, portraying the ultimate villain in Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The innately intense Kingsley isn’t an ideal match for the mild-mannered murderer who inspired philosopher Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” But like the rest of the cast, he holds our attention even when the movie buckles under the burden of earnest intentions.

Once you get past the jarring collection of mismatched accents, it’s a pleasure to be in the company of pros like Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent (“Beginners”), Nick Kroll, and Michael Aronov (“The Americans”). But as Mossad agents, their characters find little pleasure in the task designed by their intimidating boss (Lior Raz) and approved by no less than Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (Simon Russell Beale, “The Death of Stalin”): to secretly travel from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires, risking their own lives in order to capture the elusive Eichmann.

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The script’s blunt approach is indicated early on, when Argentine teen Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson, “Support the Girls”) meets her new boyfriend at a showing of the 1959 racial drama “Imitation of Life.” Sure, it’s a nice way for director Chris Weitz (“A Better Life”) to give a shout-out to his mother, Susan Kohner, one of the film’s stars. But it’s an awfully obvious metaphor for the secretly-Jewish-passing-as-Catholic Sylvia, who proudly brings home the handsome, ultra-Aryan Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”).

Sylvia’s father (Peter Strauss) is stunned to realize he’s got a Nazi heir casually eating dinner at his house and immediately alerts Israeli authorities. While Klaus courts Sylvia by bringing her to terrifying Nazi rallies, the Mossad team begins devising a proposal to bring the elder Eichmann to justice.

The plan is a supremely dangerous one: Peter (Isaac), Rafi (Kroll), Isser (Raz), and Hanna (Laurent) are among the undercover agents who fly to Buenos Aires in hopes of airlifting Eichmann out. But first they have to kidnap him without the notice of his loyal wife (an underused Greta Scacchi) or Fascist henchman (a chilling Pêpê Rapazote, “Narcos”). Then they need to hold him at a hidden safe house that could be discovered at any moment by anti-Semitic local leaders. Worse still, the plane on which they hope to smuggle him out can’t take off unless Eichmann signs a document in which he freely agrees to be tried in Israel.

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That unlikely requirement should be enough to create tension on its own, and Weitz does build a sense of palpable panic around these impossibly high stakes. Moreover, because the movie primarily takes place in 1960, everyone on the Israeli team has been directly impacted by the Holocaust. Eichmann was a chief organizer of the Final Solution, responsible for sending millions of Jews — including Peter’s sister and her children — to their deaths.

That being the case, it strains credulity when we’re asked to believe that a personally haunted, professionally brilliant spy like Peter could be so easily drawn in by his crafty prisoner. First-time screenwriter Matthew Orton often seems to be going more for broad-stroke dramatics than gripping authenticity, given that he’s crafted a fairly generic biopic out of what was truly one of the most remarkable missions in modern history.

But it’s evident that he and Weitz believe passionately in their project, as does this wide range of first-rate actors. Every one of the supporting players makes an impact in his or her brief scenes, with standouts including the luminous Laurent and an effectively subdued Kroll, although both could have used more to do.

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Indeed, the movie really belongs to the central pair, to such a degree that it often feels like a two-hander. Kingsley and Isaac are unusually charismatic actors, which elevates each of their cat-and-mouse scenes. Though it’s off-putting to watch Kingsley humanize a man who dedicated himself to monstrous acts, it was Eichmann’s apparent ordinariness that became his second legacy: the banality that Arendt so famously described after watching him defend himself as a cog in larger machinery.

Both Weitz and Orton are keenly aware of the parallels between Eichmann’s era and our own, and though they don’t hit them too hard, their intent is powerfully clear. This urgency (aptly accentuated by Alexandre Desplat’s score), and the sincere commitment of all involved, gives the movie a greater weight than its labored pacing and bland visuals otherwise might.

It’s a shame the filmmakers felt constrained by the import of their subject matter, rather than inspired to take some artistic risks. But even when the storytelling falters, the story itself — not merely extraordinary, but eternally relevant — remains paramount.

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Oscar Isaac Is a Mossad Spy in First Trailer for ‘Operation Finale’ (Video)

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

MGM has released the first trailer for “Operation Finale,” a film about the true story about the 1960 mission to capture Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann.

In the trailer, we see Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, the man who came up with the transportation logistics that brought millions of Jews to the concentration camps.

“My job was simple,” says Eichmann. “Save the country I loved from being destroyed.”

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Oscar Isaac stars as a Mossad spy Peter Malkin, while Melanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson, Joe Alwyn, Nick Kroll and Lior Raz also star in the historical drama that was directed by Chris Weitz and written by Matthew Orton.

Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Fred Berger produce under their Automatik banner alongside Isaac and Inspire Entertainment’s Jason Spire. Matt Charman and Ron Schmidt executive produced.

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“If you fail,” Malkin is told, “he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg you –do not fail.”

“Operation Finale” hits theaters on September 14.

Watch the trailer above.

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