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."
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.