Theodor Herzl was an assimilated Viennese journalist who became the unlikely founder of modern Zionism and a main catalyst for the creation of the Jewish State of Israel.
That much most of us know in broad strokes, but for those thirsting for a more detailed picture of the man’s background, family life, setbacks and triumphs, we recommend a visit to a Laemmle theater to see “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl.”
Director and writer Richard Trank (and co-producer with Rabbi Marvin Hier) of the 96-minute documentary has done a thorough job in researching and hunting down historical footage, and is aided by the professional narration of actor Ben Kingsley. The latter has been a frequent presence in pictures produced by Moriah Films, the Oscar-winning documentary arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Herzl is given voice by Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, a long way from Waltz’s American breakthrough role as the Jew-hunting SS colonel in “Inglourious Basterds.” Music is by Lee Holdridge, and bookending the film at the beginning and conclusion is Israel’s president Shimon Peres.
Herzl was born in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and site of the largest synagogue in Europe.
As did most assimilated Jewish families in central Europe, the Herzl family conversed in German, and by the age of 8, young Theodor reportedly knew all of the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller by heart, roughly the equivalent of reciting all of Shakespeare’s works from memory.
While Theodor was still a child, the family moved to Vienna and later he became a lawyer, while on the side writing plays that met with only moderate success.
But he made his real mark as an outstanding journalist, married into a wealthy Jewish family, and during a stormy marriage fathered three children.
In 1890, the Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press), a leading Viennese newspaper, made Herzl its Paris correspondent, which turned out to be a fateful move for the man and the Jewish people.
He famously covered the treason trial of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, and “Dream” focuses on that momentous miscarriage of justice to illustrate the up-and-down history of French Jewry. This included becoming the first Jewish community in Europe to receive full citizenship under Napoleon, to the anti-Semitic mob outbursts during the Dreyfus trial.
The trial awoke Herzl to the dangers facing Jews all over Europe, and he prophetically predicted that a time would come when even the powerful Rothschild banking family would be expelled from Europe.
In short order, the lawyer-journalist laid out the blueprint for a future Jewish state in his book “Der Judenstaat,” which detailed the administrative, economic and military structure of the imagined country.
No detail was too small for Herzl’s middle-European mind, and as one of the new nation’s very first acts he urged the erection of … an opera house.
At the beginning, Herzl’s fantasy vision was derided by almost everyone. Orthodox Jews told him that only the Messiah could give the Jews their own country, while the Reform movement advocated Jewish integration within the host populations of European countries.
Trank and his colleagues do a particularly effective job of tracking Herzl’s triumphs and setbacks during the First World Zionist Congress, held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland.
The road ahead would be rocky and bloody, but Herzl, who died at 44, had laid the foundation stone while confiding to his diary the then insane belief that a Jewish state would be proclaimed within 50 years, at the latest (he was off by one year).
“It Is No Dream” will screen at four Laemmle theaters, starting Aug. 17 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. The documentary is also set for two-night (Aug. 18 and 19) engagements at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Claremont 5 in Claremont.
CAMERA, the Zionist Organization of America West, AMIT and StandWithUs are co-sponsoring the Aug. 21 evening show at the Music Hall, which will include a Q&A with director Trank. For information and tickets, call (310) 855-9606.