The Long Way Home
Directed and written by Mark Jonathan Harris. Narrated by Morgan Freeman. With the voices of Edward Asner, Sean Astin, Martin Landau, Miriam Margolyes, David Paymer, Nina Siemaszko, Helen Slater, and Michael York. Plays Friday through Thursday, May 8-14, at the Roxie.

A documentary about a disability or the Holocaust, movie industry wags say, will have a head start toward an Academy Award. This year's winner, The Long Way Home, is about the Holocaust's afterlife and Zionism's rebirth. But this brave, harrowing movie won on merit. It starts in 1945, with the liberation of the Nazi death camps; it ends with the establishment of Israel in 1948. No mere 50th-birthday celebration, it's a stirring birthday rumination. Mark Jonathan Harris' assembly of interviews, extensive historical footage, and written memoirs (read by self-effacing actors) testifies to the urgent need for a Jewish state. Europe had hosted the murder of 6 million Jews; "the surviving remnant" had nowhere to go. America was drifting into a Cold War anti-immigrant phase -- as one observer put it, "Refugee equals Jew equals Red." Erstwhile neighbors treated Jews who returned to Old World homes as troubling ghosts or, worse, easy targets. Astonishingly, 41 Jews perished during a pogrom in Poland on the late date of July 4, 1946.

Palestine had been a magnet for Jewish settlement since the early years of the century. But after the war Britain, still ruling Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, wouldn't permit the swift establishment of a Jewish homeland. Bowing to Arab pressure, Britain continued to clamp down on Jewish immigrants to Palestine (permitting only 1,500 a month). The Crown either interned illegal immigrants on Cyprus or returned them to Europe -- often to the spots where Nazis had staged crimes against humanity. The Long Way Home takes a forthright, sensitive look at displaced persons on the brink of becoming a dying people. At the end you feel elated for men and women scrambling out of hell and onto a spot of terra firma they can call home.

Harris is a conventional, just-the-facts documentary-maker, but his insistence on preserving the survivors' own responses leads him to reveal the hidden torments of horribly familiar scenes. In the opening sequence, the words of a woman freed at Bergen-Belsen hurtle from hope to confusion and despair. She couldn't understand why her liberators were dumbstruck until the soldiers started to vomit: That's when she comprehended, "We were disgusting to look at." The virtue of a foursquare documentary done with Harris' dexterity and intelligence is its dumbfounding persuasiveness. Harris convinces you that you're seeing exactly what each voice on the soundtrack describes -- like the suddenly embarrassed Jews turning their backs on their appalled Allied onlookers.

Harris also includes the perspective of American Jewish chaplains and activists who helped reunite survivors with loved ones or who smuggled them out of Europe or agitated for an end to the British Mandate over Palestine. But Harris' empathy for the displaced people gives this film its sense of freshly unearthed history. Around them swirl military personnel -- the Allies, the good guys -- who can't grasp what the Jews endured and have only makeshift solutions for housing and sustaining them. When the Allies establish their own camps for displaced persons (called "DPs"), Jews find themselves bunking next to Nazi sympathizers or collaborators; even after the Jews get DP camps of their own, they live in squalor and neglect. Months and years after the war, they can't escape these terrible successors to concentration camps. Of the 63 ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants from Mediterranean ports, only six make it through the British blockade to Palestine.

Still, Harris refuses to let the prolonged victimization of the Jews overshadow their resiliency. He doesn't downplay the hopelessness they felt in their Teutonic limbo-land, but from the beginning he drops clues to their stubborn survival instincts. He strews the soundtrack with reminiscences of the survivors' physical healing and their desperate, willed return to emotional life. Acts of feeling and of spirit merge; marriage has never seemed more of a sacrament than it does in this movie.

Harris details how the awful scale and complexity of the Holocaust confounded nonparticipants. Jewish Brigade soldiers from Palestine had trouble seeing humanity in walking skeletons; American Jews would tell newly arrived relatives that they had it hard in the war years, too. Harris also records the blatant anti-Semitism of world figures such as Gen. George S. Patton, who ranked Jewish refugees lower than animals, and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who regarded Jews as benighted troublemakers. Without special pleading, the moviemaker allows you to see the Jews as they saw themselves in 1945, encircled by apathetic or befuddled victors and outright haters. The Chosen People? The sainted few left from a martyred race? Whatever the state of their pride, they were an endangered species. Harris presents the key Zionist case: No matter how strong they were as individuals, only an idea as magnetic as the establishment of a Jewish state could unite and revitalize them as a people. At the film's halfway point, when DP inmates start to build mock kibbutzim and learn Hebrew, and sacrifice whatever they have to travel to Palestine, Harris' rendering of them turns from pathos to awe at "a new type of person tempered by incredible suffering."

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