- Movie Rating -

Vishniac (2024)

| January 31, 2024

It is a little hard to walk into a documentary about The Holocaust anymore and not wonder what the latest entry is bringing to the conversation.  Holocaust documentaries are a crowded field; essential but crowded.  For me, the most successful are those that don’t cover the same ground.  The focus on the individual is not only important, but crucial.  When we see those photographs of bodies in mass graves stacked atop one another, it is important to be reminded that every one of those people was a person who had a life, a history, a narrative, a family.  Documenting individual stories is crucial because it pushes back against what the Nazis took away.

That’s what I was left with at the end of Laura Bialis’ Vishniac, which chronicles the adventure of professional photographer Roman Vishniac who was born in tsarist Russia and whose work included unguarded photographs of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between 1935 and 1938.  Through his photographs, one can see the narrative of the history of the Jews, of the Bolshevik uprising, and then after his family moved to Europe, the social freedom offered during the Weimar Republic and then the rise of Hitler, The Nuremberg Racial Laws, Kristallnacht, the ghettos, the arrests, the deportation and the death camps.  All of these things Vishniac captured through his camera.

The story is told largely by Roman’s daughter Mara.  The film was a labor of love, but also a race against time.  Mara was in her 90s and died in 2018 and in their time together Bialis was able to capture candid interviews with Mara about her family, her father and his work.  But what is surprising is that her stories aren’t all glowing praise.  She was not entirely protective of him, citing him as sometimes difficult toward her mother and his family in general, and shameless in his own self-promotion.  As a child, Mara was happy to work alongside her father in the dark room, and she could see the magic and the ostentatiousness that sometimes came out in his work – he once posed Mara in front a Nazi poster both to take her portrait but also to document the pressure that was being put on Europe’s Jews.

By 1940, after Hitler had come to power, Roman and his family were lucky enough to get Visas to leave Germany for America.  They escaped, many didn’t not, and the work that Roman took with him was invaluable because what he had photographed in the years leading up to the rise of the Nazis were individuals who had perished in concentration camps, and the communities that had been destroyed.  We are told individual stories of some of the people see through Roman’s lens and then later we learn of their fate.

Adding to the narrative was Roman’s return to Europe after the war where he chronicled the devastation that had taken place – the aftermath of the burned-out cities and displaced survivors looking for loved ones lucky enough to have survive.  In many cases, Vishniac had before-and-after shots of streets and apartment buildings, places he knew quite well.

In most documentaries, that would have been the end, but remarkably, Bialis keeps going.  The film shifts back to America where Roman began photographing microbiology – not satisfied to simply capture it between sheets of glass, he wanted to capture life as it was happening.  Out of this came “The Living Biology” series, which I remember seeing in school.  Life.  Roman wanted to capture living things, not dead things.  That message lands on us with beautiful clarity.

If I have only one small complaint, it might be the use of recreations with actors.  That’s always been a major no-no in documentary filmmaking and in a film that is a personal chronicle about a photographer dedicated to capturing life as it happens through the black and white image, it is distracting to suddenly have color recreations of events.  I might have preferred that the entire story be told through Visniac’s images.  But aside from those staged scenes, the film is still remarkable, individual, real and engrossing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2024) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary