DOC-UARY: 31 DOCS IN 31 DAYS – PART THREE
Reviews by Chris MacKenzie
7. Crossing the Line – 4 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
This engrossing film delves into the story of an American, James Joseph Dresnok, one of four US soldiers who defected to North Korea during the Korean War.
Thoughts: Riveting. This documentary impresses straight out of the gate by the fact that the primary subject of this film is not only so available, but so candid. It seems impossible that such a repressive government, who apparently never fully trusted these defectors, would let this one give such a revealing look into his life and the consequences of his actions.
Dresnok gives a detailed explanation of what he was going through and the steps that lead up to his defection. I have to say I found myself not excusing, but certainly understanding, what he did. Given his status in the Army, and the pain that was facing him in the States should he have returned, the circumstances of crossing the DMZ sound logical. The movie does such a good job of taking you through that moment, then you find yourself saying, “OK, what’s next?” at the same moment the defector does. The movie then seamlessly launches into that phase of the story. This film is essentially about making a rash decision in the heat of youth, and then spending a lifetime living with and justifying that decision.
A great movie gets even better when the defector is confronted with critical facts about his version of events. We see Dreskok squirm, he is either not prepared to face, or more likely not willing to acknowledge that there is more to the story than what he lets himself believe. The defector is happy in the sanitized version of the story he’s provided. But when we see the full scope of what the North Korean government did, and how these defectors were more than happy to propagate it, our view of Dresnok changes considerably. We are sent into a world where we don’t know who to believe as everyone involved is not to be totally trusted.
This film could have used a bit more coverage of the atrocities that the North Korean government has committed. It gives North Korea a pass by insinuating that both they and the US were equally evil. It isn’t until further into the film that we are reminded that Kim Jong-Il was later installed as the dictator, and that he has always been batshit crazy.
This movie gets good, and then gets even better. And don’t worry if you are not up on the Korean war, I found my lack of knowledge about the defectors (I didn’t know there was more than one) made the movie more enjoyable.
Thoughts: The idea that someone could do what they did is amazing, but I found Herb and Dorothy more interesting than most of the art they bought. I have no doubt their collection is great, but it also does encompass a lot of work that is a little more difficult to penetrate. Out of the era and context in which it was produced, many of the works seem like just a square on a canvas. To compensate for that, the movie over-relies on name dropping. I know it’s not feasible to give a complete art history lesson on the second half of the 20th century, but the movie’s scenes where the couple aimlessly wanders past their collection at the National Gallery could have been more effective if they were a bit more clinical. As they wander, there is the quintessential Museum Curator with his neckcorded glasses pinched to his nose, and I found myself wanting to ask him questions. Instead, he flits around them, kowtowing to one of the museum’s biggest donors.
The most interesting scenes to me were seeing the couple in action. Several prominent artists are featured in the film, but when we see Herb really dig into an artist’s newest work, right in front of them, we see what feels like the most honest insight into who they are. This couple has ingratiated themselves to the top artists in New York, but they also aren’t quite as soft as they come across. As best as a man in his 80s can, Herb strong-arms an artist to not only give him a piece that the artist doesn’t think works, but also has the chutzpah to bargain with him. Obviously, this is how the business of business is done, but the film glosses over that aspect quite a bit, which is a shame. We’re left feeling like we’re not getting the whole story.
In the end, this film’s strongest aspect is it’s central theme: the pure joy of having something, and more importantly someone, to dedicate your life to.
9. Forgiving Dr. Mengele – 4 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
The inspiring story of an Auschwitz survivor, Eva Moses Kor, who deals with the horrors she endured by doing the unthinkable, forgiving the monsters who perpetrated them.
Thoughts: This is an amazing story. The first part of the movie deals with Eva and her twin sister’s arrival to Auschwitz. It was particularly interesting to see how a child’s mind dealt with landing in this nightmare. As she figures out the extent of the horror that she will never see her parents again, that she and her sister were only spared so Mengele could experiment on them, and that she was not expected to survive these experiments, we hear her recount how her determination to survive grew. The impact of the horror really hits home with the images shown, including one of her and her sister at the front of a long line of people being led out of Auschwitz. The things Mengele did were so deeply psychopathic you wonder if surviving them would be a good thing. But Eva’s narrative proves that there is always a light in the darkest of moments, and that it is always worth it to follow that light.
With that as the set up, the film does a great job of then discovering the toll left on Eva, and all Holocaust survivors, after liberation. To Eva, the desire to not talk about one’s time in the camps, reconciling the things you’ve seen with the life you now have, and most importantly, feeling that you will never truly be safe are all evidence that the ghosts of these horrible men still hold power over the survivors. These ideas are what motivate her to find a way to deal with the pain and to finally free herself from the bonds in which she still lives.
And her solution is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. As she frantically searches the world for Mengele’s files so doctors can figure out the best way to treat her sister’s failing health, Eva meets with Dr. Hans Munch. While Dr. Munch was a Nazi doctor in Auschwitz, he was the only Nazi acquitted of war crimes after being exonerated by several survivors testifying that he saved their lives. Unfortunately, Dr. Munch can offer no help with the Mengele files, but he does wind up accompanying Eva to a memorial at Auschwitz where she boldly reads a statement in which she declares that she forgives the Nazis for everything they did.
Needless to say, this is not appreciated by other survivors and those charged with keeping the history of the Holocaust alive. I think this movie does an excellent job of making the point that this is Eva’s way of dealing with this, but it may not be for everyone. We see the thinly veiled disdain other Mengele Twins have for her decision, as well as Jewish leaders and Rabbis, but we also see that this was the absolute right decision for Eva. Her declaration sets her soul free and the results are tangible.
She opens a Holocaust memorial in (of all places) her hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, with the purpose of honoring those who died, and by extension, trying to heal those who survived. Her dedication to the museum is tested in the most heartbreaking way, but she weathers it.
The last third of the movie does a nice job of returning us to the bigger world, the larger picture. An ill-advised meeting with Palestinians backfires when the focus shifts from giving forgiveness to demanding apologies. A visit to Eva’s Israeli relatives hints that even her twin sister may not have been on board with the forgiveness declaration. But through it all we still see Eva pushing forward, insisting her motives are not those of betrayal, but personal healing.
With over six million Jewish victims, the Holocaust was a tragedy on the largest of scales. But this film does an excellent job of focusing on just one of those affected by it. This movie explores the healing of one person against the backdrop of the healing of an entire people.
“Crossing the Line”, “Herb and Dorothy” and “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” are available on NETFLIX.