Third-generation soap-maker, escaped mental patient and son of Orthodox Jews and Holocaust victims, Bronner, who died in 1997, is the subject of a new documentary, "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox," and in the film, the only suit Bronner wears is a swimsuit. That's because his pool is one of the many pulpits from which Bronner preaches his messages of "All-One-God-Faith" and "The Moral ABCs," both of which he pasted on every soap bottle he produced.
In the film, Bronner's black sunglasses and passionate, Germanized speech make him a cross between mad scientist and preacher on a mission. He employs feverish, often religious rhetoric, invoking such names as Moses, Hillel, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz as prophets of one God. "All one! All one! All one!" Bronner insists throughout the movie.
"Dad's intensity could drive you away," Bronner's son, Ralph, said in an interview, "because he also couldn't control stopping." Even when the camera turns to someone else, Bronner continues to rant in the background.
The film, which opens July 13 in Los Angeles, mythologizes Bronner but does not canonize him. His tragic flaw is his intense devotion to his mission, which caused him to neglect his children. Even though Bronner's speech is intelligible, his ideas are so strange that subtitles had to be used. Clearly, it was hard for him to articulate his thoughts in a way that was understandable to other people.
Excerpt from the film
Ralph, whose sweet, straightforward speech needs no subtitles, is the real hero of the film. The documentary follows Ralph as he prepares for a one-man off-off-Broadway show about his father. He engages everyone who crosses his path by offering him his father's soap and story. In a kiosk, Ralph holds hands with the cashier and talks about fair wages. In the cemetery where his father is buried, he talks to a man who once knew Bronner and has now lost most of his own family. In his hotel, Ralph sits with a musician who is living with his terminally ill girlfriend. In the most poignant moment of the film, the musician breaks into tears and is consoled by the kindness of Ralph's unwavering optimism.
"If it was said with even one dark tone," the musician says of Ralph's outlook, "it could be taken a different way."
"I'm a lot more lighthearted" than my father, Bronner said. He ends the conversations with the cashier, the man at the graveyard and the musician with a simple question: "Can I give you a hug?"
Soap-making, no matter how you film it, is mechanical. But in "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox," director and co-producer Sara Lamm focuses on the humanity behind it all. She carves down 128 hours of footage, a dripping vat of eccentricities, leaving 88 minutes of Bronner family history. But through it all, Ralph remains devoted to his father and to the message of unity and peace.
"I want to keep Dad alive," he said.
The film opens July 13 at the Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. A Q-and-A with director Sara Lamm will take place after the July 13, 7:20 p.m. screening. For more information, call (310) 274-6869.
This article originally appeared in the Forward.