AJFF What to Watch: Films About Heroes Part 2

10/19/2020

Heroes and heroic measures are central in this mix of narratives and documentaries that were formerly featured at AJFF's annual festival. All are true stories. And, in case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus
An American couple risks everything to stage the largest rescue of Jewish children to the United States from an unimaginable fate in Nazi-occupied Vienna, in this documentary, featured at the 2014 AJFF. Unlikely candidates to undertake such a daunting mission, attorney Gilbert Kraus and his wife Elanor were secular Jews leading an unassuming life in Philadelphia. Aware of the increasing Nazi brutality overseas, the Krauses followed their conscience, recruiting foster families that would agree to care for the Jewish refugees, and then traveled to Austria in spring 1939 to secure their freedom. Their daring plan was carried out despite the isolationist attitudes of skittish American Jews and restrictive U.S. wartime immigration policies. Investigative journalist Steven Pressman melds rare archival footage and photographs, and interviews with Holocaust historians and surviving children who recall tearful separations from their parents at the Vienna train station. The dramatic, previously untold story is narrated by Emmy winner Alan Alda, as well as actress Mamie Gummer (The Good Wife) who voices passages from Eleanor Kraus's unpublished memoir.

Across the Waters
Unsure of whom they can trust, a Jewish musician and his family make a frantic escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark, in this gripping story of survival and rescue. Enjoying the nightlife of 1943 Copenhagen, jazz guitarist Arne Itkin (David Denick) is seemingly immune to the hardships of war, as the Danish government opts for a compliant relationship with Nazi Germany. He is initially skeptical when his terrified wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) hears rumors of the round-up and deportation of Danish Jews. An overnight raid however, forces the couple to flee their home with five-year-old son Jakob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz). Aided by a church pastor and underground resistance, they set out on a journey for the fishing village of Gileleje, where refugees await passage to Sweden by boat. Amidst lurking danger from the Gestapo and their collaborators, the family puts its fate in the hands of strangers whose allegiance and motives are not always clear. Based on true events, this well paced and strongly edited drama is directed and co-written by Nicolo Donato, whose own grandfather was among the courageous Danish fisherman to ferry war refugees to safety. Featured at the 2017 AJFF.

Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Employing dramatic reenactments, this documentary commemorates the life of the Hungarian poet and resistance fighter who became a national heroine in Israel. Hannah Senesh knew little of Judaism until rising anti-Semitism prompted her migration from Budapest to Palestine at the outset of World War II. Enlisting in a mission to liberate Hungarian Jews, she parachuted behind enemy lines only to be captured and ultimately executed by the Nazis. From her fiery embrace of Zionism to an untimely death, Hannah's journey is poignantly recorded in poems and letters. Narrated by Oscar-nominee Joan Allen, Blessed Is the Match is a profile in fortitude and self-sacrifice. Featured at the 2009 AJFF.

The Light of Hope
This inspiring story of resistance and sacrifice, based on real events, celebrates the courage of a Red Cross nurse in Spain who saved hundreds of Jewish wartime refugees. As persecuted populations seek shelter from Europe's early 1940s fascist regimes, young Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz (Noémie Schmidt) arrives in the south of France near Spain to aid those suffering from disease and malnutrition. Appalled by the dire conditions facing pregnant women, and children, she converts an abandoned mansion into a maternity home and safe haven. Soon, Gestapo agents demand she turn in all Jewish refugees. Facing captivity or worse, Elisabeth and her female volunteers do all they can to rescue these vulnerable lives from certain death. Elisabeth Eidenbenz was awarded the status of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for founding the Mothers of Elne. This riveting, handsome drama is winner of the Gaudi Award for Best TV Film and Swiss TV Award for Best Actress Noémie Schmidt. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.

My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes
This documentary, featured at the 2015 AJFF, reveals a clandestine Italian resistance movement that helped save much of the country's Jewish population during the Shoah. An estimated 80 percent of Italy's Jews survived WWII thanks to Italian citizens who risked their own lives to defy the Nazis. Among the figures spotlighted is Tour de France cycling champion Gino Bartali (voiced by Oscar nominee Robert Loggia). Hiding a family of Jews in his own home, Bartali also smuggled fake identify documents in the frame of his bicycle for monasteries and convents that were sheltering Jewish exiles. Another remarkable story centers on physician Giovanni Borromeo who invented a fictitious disease to defend the Rome hospital where he was hiding Jews. Oscar-nominated documentarian Oren Jacoby also honors countless other Italians who rescued their Jewish neighbors with no thought of recognition or reward. These inspiring acts are recounted by descendants of rescuers and survivors, as well as those who escaped the concentration camps as children. Isabella Rossellini narrates the valuable addition to the ever-growing canon of largely unknown Holocaust stories.

Nicky's Family
A stirring tribute to the Englishman dubbed “Britain’s Schindler,” Nicky's Family illuminates the legacy of a pre-WWII mass rescue of children. In December 1938, Sir Nicholas Winton—then a London stockbroker—masterminded a series of rail-sea transports to save 669 young Czech and Slovak refugees, most of them Jewish and in imminent danger of deportation. Not even Winton’s wife knew of his noble acts until a scrapbook detailing the mission was uncovered in 1988. Nicky's Family combines newsreels and archival photos with dramatic reenactments narrated by rescued children and Sir Winton himself. The film gains added immediacy as grandchildren of the rescuees and others describe the resulting humanitarian feats Winton inspired. Featured at the 2012 AJFF.

Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
This riveting and affecting anthem to a human rights pioneer profiles the diminutive, unsung hero who put mass-murdering Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. Born in Transylvania before his family fled to the US, Ferencz grew up in a tough New York City neighborhood, persevering as a gifted law student, then enlisting in the Army in WWII. At 27, he was thrust upon the world stage as Chief Prosecutor in the historic Nuremburg Trials, trying Nazi Einsatzgruppen members, history's biggest murder case. His crusade for a new justice system based on tolerance and compassion led to the formation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. With a vivid memory and tenacious personality, the vital nonagenarian and last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, reflects on his life and career in his own powerful words, underscoring an absolute need for vigilance in the fight for justice and peace. Featured at the 2019 AJFF.