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In this seminal biodoc on the life and arduous struggles of the progenitor of the establishment of the modern Jewish state of Israel, Academy Award-winning director Richard Trank (“The Long Way Home”) presents a compelling and spellbinding portrait of Theodor Herzl; a man who was often shunted aside or patently misunderstood in the annals of history. Produced by Moriah Films, in association with the Simon Wiesenthal Center film department, “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl” puts a personal face, hitherto unknown, on the vicissitudes that Herzl endured in his relatively short, but historically impactful life.
Narrated by actors Ben Kingsley and Christoph Waltz (of “Inglorious Bastards”) Herzl’s angst and unadulterated passion leaps forth from the screen and punctuates our psyches. Director Trank liberally utilizes rarely seen black and white photos, archival articles, and somewhat eerie-sounding music, in this meticulously researched film, which would impress even the foremost scholars of Jewish history.
Born in Hungary in 1860 to Orthodox Jewish parents, Herzl was the archetypal cosmopolitan Jew; a victim of rampant assimilation that marked this era in history. A child prodigy of sorts, at the tender age of eight, Herzl mastered the works of Schiller and Goethe in the original German when his parents moved to Austria where he was raised. It was highly improbable that this young man, a Jew in name only, who was “confirmed” rather than being bar mitzvahed at 13 and who held aspirations for a career in law, would ever entertain the notion of leading a one-man crusade for independent Jewish statehood that captured the imagination of the world.
Focusing his creative energies on writing, Herzl found his niche as a talented playwright, author of novellas and short stories, and soon assumed the role as a full-time journalist for the Austrian newspaper Neue Freie Presse. Assigned to their Paris bureau as a foreign correspondent in 1894, it was there that Herzl’s prescience ignited when he covered the infamous trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish military officer, who was brought to trial on trumped up charges of treason.
The age-old strains of virulent anti-Semitism that had occasionally erupted but always simmered under the surface in France and throughout Europe exploded exponentially during the duration of the trial. Witnessing the French populace, united in hatred, and screaming, “Death to the Jew,” Herzl quickly came to the horrifying realization that Dreyfus’s trial, conviction, degradation and humiliation would translate into existential perils for the Jews of Europe. Intensely pondering the Jewish question, Herzl’s epiphany took shape when he became a fiery advocate for a Jewish return to their ancestral homeland of Palestine in order to flee an endemic anti-Semitism that would have catastrophic consequences.
Enlisting the help of Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe, including Max Nordau and Sigmund Freud, the lion’s share of support for Herzl’s dream came from the grassroots movement of Jews from Poland, Russia and other places in Eastern Europe, who had personally felt the brutal lash of anti-Semitism. Outlining his plan in the 1895 work titled “The Jewish State,” Herzl’s trajectory was clear as this transformative process ultimately led him to devote himself exclusively to the completion of his quest.
Offering unique insights into Herzl’s life is Robert S. Wistrich, the Neuberger Chair in Modern Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a world expert in the field of anti-Semitism. Others, such as Israeli president Shimon Peres and Swiss producer Arthur Cohn, are also featured as they articulate Herzl’s critical role in the founding of the modern Jewish state. Buttressing the undulating narrative of Herzl’s complicated mission is the poignant narration of Christoph Waltz as the voice of the father of Zionism. The viewer cannot help but to be exceptionally moved by Herzl’s pain, frustration, anger, and eventual hope, as his words sear our soul. Herzl’s own wife vehemently resented her husband’s cause célèbre and asked, “What happened to the man about town?”
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