The ultimate fate of Rudolf Israel Kazstner is revealed in the opening moments of “Killing Kazstner”: He was shot to death on a Tel Aviv street in 1957.
We know this is true, because we hear it from the man who assassinated him.
This is just the beginning of a winding tale told by director Gaylen Ross as she explores a story that still causes angry arguments in Israel today. She jumps back and forth in time as she tells the tale — not always to helpful effect.
Kazstner was a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with the Nazis (including the notorious Adolf Eichmann, a key facilitator of the extermination of millions of Jewish people during World War II) in a successful effort to save the lives of more than 1,600 Jews.
In the early 1950s, when Kazstner was an official in the Israeli government, a very public trial brought these negotiations into uncomfortable light. Those 1,600 people were unquestionably saved because of Kazstner’s efforts, but what was the cost?
The trial raised questions about what Kazstner might have bargained with; along with the money provided by the wealthiest of the evacuees, did he deliberately not warn the remaining Jewish population about the deadly camps?
And why did he lie to the court about writing a letter pleading leniency for a Nazi official after the war ended?
The film sifts through all sorts of possible answers to these questions, and many other questions besides (including conspiracy theories, some of which approach “JFK” proportions).
Director Ross is fortunate to have some key people participate in the movie — most notably, the assassin himself (a free man for many years), and Kazstner’s daughter, who has been fighting to clear her father’s name for many years. The movie points toward an inevitable meeting between these two.
I found it all completely fascinating, even if it becomes clear that Ross’ sympathies are with the Kazstner side of the argument.
(Side complaint: Ross’ own toneless narration is one of the film’s real weak spots.)
At the very least, the movie digs up a series of compelling stories about the Holocaust and the world’s reaction to it.
The Kazstner story is a messy, uncomfortable one, which is probably why nobody’s made a “Schindler’s List” out of it. But those rough edges and moral gray areas make for an engrossing documentary.