Documentarian Gaylen Ross tells a fascinating story in an unwieldy way in “Killing Kasztner.” The titular figure was a Hungarian Jew who rescued over 1,600 of his countrymen after the Nazis began implementing their Final Solution in his country in 1944. One might expect that Rudolf Kasztner might be considered a hero in Israel.
But that’s hardly the case. After the war Kasztner settled in the new Jewish homeland, became a journalist and a member of the government of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. But in 1953 a provocateur named Gruenwald attacked him in print. Not only, Gruenwald said, did Kasztner collaborate with Nazi officials, including Adolf Eichmann, by negotiating a ransom with them for the 1,600 he saved. He also failed to warn other Hungarian Jews of their imminent deportation to Auschwitz—an omission that in effect made him complicit in their deaths.
What followed was a libel case against Gruenwald which had as tragic an end as the one Oscar Wilde brought against the Marquis. It was revealed that Kasztner had lied—or fudged—about his intervention urging leniency for some of the Nazis with whom he’d negotiated during their war-crime trials. The revelation turned the judge against him, and he was branded as having sold his soul to the devil. The hero was now pegged as a villain, and his infamy used by opposition figures as a means of undermining the government. In 1957 was assassinated, and Ze’ev Eckstein, a young member of a right-wing extremist group, was convicted of the killing along with two co-conspirators. But he was released from prison after only seven years behind bars, and though the Israeli Supreme Court ultimately reversed the original verdict, Kasztner remains a largely despised figure in Israel—at least among those who even know who he was.
Ross’s film is clearly designed to rehabilitate Kasztner’s memory; much of it is devoted to the plight of his daughter and her children, who suffered for “the sins of the father” and actively support his recognition as a hero, and to the feelings of those whom he helped save, most of whom agree with the family (although some, we see, do not). But it attempts more: it aims to understand Eckstein, who’s interviewed at length and who (in a rather strained last-act sequence) sits down to talk with Zsuzsi Kasztner. And in interviews with journalists, academics, and ordinary Israeli citizens, it raises the question of what makes a hero. (Footage from a university classroom discussion in which very different views are expressed is a highlight.)
But while all this material, along with the archival background photos, is intriguing and some of it enlightening, Ross doesn’t show much skill in pulling it together. As edited by her, Andrew Ford and Laure Sullivan, the picture is lumpish and disjointed, with lots of repetition and transitions that often seem clumsy. And intimations of dark conspiracies—the machinations of the Ben-Gurion government in distancing itself from Kasztner, queries about one or more additional shooters that echo “Grassy Knoll” theories—are never fleshed out enough to be more than tabloidesque. It was also a mistake for Ross to intrude herself so much into the proceedings; she’s not exactly a charismatic presence.
“Killing Kasztner” ends on an ambiguous note—a kind of closure for the family and the supportive survivors, but none for Eckstein (who, it must be said, comes across as slightly unbalanced). By the end it’s certainly done its job of reacquainting the world with a case that’s personally compelling and that raises serious moral—and political—issues. A pity the structural flaws undermine its impact.