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'Shadows From My Past' confronts Austria's role in the Holocaust

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman traces Austria's role in the Holocaust through her Jewish family's experience

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman, co-director of the documentary "Shadows From My Past," looks directly into the camera as she reads her own words and those of long-dead relatives. That straightforward gaze is essential to the impact of a film that honors memory without stooping to sentimentalism, tracing Austria's role in the Holocaust through one Jewish family's experience.

New Yorker Kaufman worked on the film with her husband, Curt Kaufman, for more than 10 years, and she completed its editing after his death in 2011. What Kaufman's blunt inquiry lacks in technical refinement, it makes up for in details — in interviewees' recollections and, most harrowing, in the box full of letters that sparked the project. They're anxious missives from Kaufman's aunts, uncles and cousins, caught in the Nazis' annexation of Austria and trying to secure visas to leave Europe.

Returning to Vienna half a century after she, her parents and her brothers escaped deportation to Dachau, Kaufman interviews intellectuals and leading political figures (Kurt Waldheim among them) in a loosely organized exploration of collective versus individual guilt. The questions posed are hardly new, but the film is persuasive in its distrust of easy assumptions.

Most chilling and cautionary are first-hand accounts of the overnight transformation of non-Jewish friends and neighbors into armband-flaunting anti-Semites. Coursing through it all is the plaintiveness beneath the calm surface of the letters. The camera turns this evidence into a visual motif: pages filled with elegant handwriting, envelopes bearing a chaos of postmarks. The writers didn't always get the answers they sought. As one observer notes, "There were not enough heroes."

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"Shadows From My Past"

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.

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