‘Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis’

Film Critic

If you know the name Rezso Kasztner, you won’t need any encouragement to see “Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis.” If you don’t, that is even more reason to see this documentary on the strange and compelling life and death of one of the most morally complex figures to come out of the Holocaust.

From one point of view, Kasztner sounds like a classic hero. He negotiated face to face with Adolf Eichmann for the freedom of Hungarian Jews, a process that eventually resulted in a rescue train that brought 1,684 Jews to the safety of Switzerland. The film describes this action as the largest single rescue of Jews by Jews in the entire war.

But once Kasztner became a postwar émigré to Israel, things unaccountably changed. Charges surfaced that he had been not a hero but a collaborator, someone who worked a bit too closely with the Nazis and saved some Jews at the expense of others. These accusations resulted first in a libel trial considered one of the most explosive judicial moments in Israeli history and then, shockingly, in the assassination of Kasztner in 1957 by a right-wing Israeli extremist.

Director Gaylen Ross, an unapologetic Kasztner partisan, spent eight years on this project, and the kind of zeal you need to do that means her film verges on the overemphatic. But there can be no doubt as to the value of this disturbing story. As an examination of what happens when events on the ground collide with national myth and a look at how disinclined complex reality is to fit into tidy boxes, it can’t be beat.

The centerpiece of “Killing Kasztner” is the film’s exceptional access to Ze’ev Eckstein, the man convicted of shooting Kasztner and long out of prison, who opens the film by taking Ross back to the scene of the crime and reenacting what happened on that fateful night.

As thoughtful and articulate as he is tortured and conflicted, Eckstein is a remarkable talker at pains to make sure that Ross understands how things happened. Speaking in English, as do many of the film’s participants (likely at the director’s urging), Eckstein describes “the process of ripening” that turned him into an assassin and describes himself in the beginning as “a decent Jewish boy, not a dark feverish person with a lust to kill.”

“Killing Kasztner” also spends considerable time with Kasztner’s daughter, Zsuzi, and his granddaughter, Israeli media figure Merav Michaeli. The continued scorn that Kasztner and the train survivors receive in Israel makes his daughter feel like “he gets murdered over and over again.” In terms of plot line, the film goes back and forth between relating what happened in World War II Europe, describing what went down at the trial, and talking about the here and now.

Aside from Eckstein, who seems to be using the film as a form of confession, the most fascinating aspect of “Killing Kasztner” involves that celebrated libel trial, which began when the Israeli government, Kasztner’s employer, encouraged him to sue a fringe writer who had made those collaborator claims. Things took an unexpected turn when the writer’s attorney, in part to embarrass that David Ben Gurion-led government, in effect turned the tables and acted as if Kasztner were on trial.

One point that several commentators make is that the Israeli public turned on Kasztner because his pragmatic dealmaking did not fit the paradigm of how Eastern European Jews behaved. He was neither a martyred victim to be pitied like the 6 million nor a heroic model of armed resistance like the Warsaw ghetto fighters. Interestingly enough, discussions with current Israeli university students show an increased interest in an attitude that is now viewed as realistic.

Ross begins her film with a pair of quotes from Bertolt Brecht’s “ Galileo.” One of Galileo’s students says, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” and the scientist responds, “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.” What “Killing Kasztner” is at pains to demonstrate is the kinds of damage this passion for heroes can inflict.