The film contains extraordinary footage of Jews trekking up mountain slopes (from Eastern to Western Europe, and from Germany and Austria over the Alps to Italy) during their clandestine journeys to Palestine -- where the unyielding British send them back. Harris sketches in the political background sparely and swiftly. He focuses on Britain's diplomatic dance among Arabs and Jewish factions and the cruel edicts that limited Jewish immigration at the time of the greatest demand for it -- before, during, and after the war.
The biggest fiction film to treat this material was, of course, Otto Preminger's Exodus. Preminger couldn't sustain the tension of the first 90 minutes. It was, after all, the longest American film next to Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments. What amazed me when I re-saw it last week was how well much of it held up as political melodrama and how lightweight it seemed after watching The Long Way Home. Preminger took pains to make his film on actual locations in Cyprus and Israel, but either temperament or convention steered him to sanitized, romantic myth-making. Preminger's depiction of Cyprus pales before journalist Ruth Gruber's recollection, in The Long Way Home, "You had to smell Cyprus to believe it."
Preminger staged a moving vignette of Jewish mothers on the refugee ship Exodus willing to risk their children's health in a hunger strike. But, again, it's dwarfed in The Long Way Home when Gruber recollects a woman in the crowded belly of the real Exodus who held up her baby to be photographed and said she knew her own life was ruined -- she and the rest were struggling to secure life for the next generation. (The DP camps both in Cyprus and in Europe were sites of a veritable Jewish baby boom.) The actual saga of the Exodus, one of the 57 illegal carriers that didn't reach Palestine, towers over the fictional one in terror and heartbreak: British gunboats attacked it, killing three of the 4,500 passengers and wounding dozens of others; the British authorities rerouted the ship to France (where the passengers refused to disembark) and ultimately returned the Jews to former concentration camps in Germany.
The Long Way Home suggests why so much Holocaust history has only recently been told. For years, as Harris shows, those who lived through the camps were made to feel morally tainted for enduring, and were urged to get on with their lives. Harris compels us to understand and lament "survivors' guilt." Indeed, it's fair to guess that one-time DPs who see The Long Way Home will be filled with survivors' pride.
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