Documentary traces rescuers’ crucial role throughout history

By Christopher Ringrose | 25 Mar 15

The Rescuers | Michael King

The Rescuers screened on March 14, 2015 – a month after the death of the British Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who features prominently in the film – at the Classic Cinema Elsternwick as part of the Melbourne Holocaust Film Series.

The documentary itself was originally released in January 2011 and explores the part played by diplomats, among others, in saving tens of thousands of European Jews from Nazi persecution, deportation and almost certain death. The most famous of these diplomats is the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, whose humanitarianism and personal bravery is commemorated throughout the world – including in a monument on the corner of Princess Street and High Street in Kew, Melbourne.

Wallenberg issued protective passports and arranged shelter for thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II, defying both the German occupiers and their sympathisers, the Hungarian fascists. The Rescuers sets out to honour Wallenberg’s work, as it documents many instances of similar work throughout occupied Europe.

It does this by bearing witness to a series of journeys undertaken by Sir Martin Gilbert (then aged 74) and Stephanie Nyombayire, a young Rwandan woman who lost hundreds of her extended family in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and was actively seeking to publicise the continuing horrors of genocide in Western Sudan’s Darfur region and elsewhere.

None of these stories is previously untold, but the cumulative effect of their retelling is powerful.

American documentary filmmaker Michael King follows these two investigators on train and plane journeys as they revisit the cities, sites and buildings where diplomats risked their careers and lives by overriding the orders of their superiors and issuing documents, accommodating refugees, confronting local officials and even, in some case, travelling to camps to engineer the release of prisoners. The film showcases the diversity of the efforts, as the nationalities of the 12 featured diplomats are revealed, among them American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV; Muslim Turkish ambassador Selahattin Ülkümen; and Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

The documents that surface during the investigation are remarkable. A telegram from Japan to Sugihara containing an imperative to stop issuing transit visas to Jewish refugees is one of them. Sugihara ignored this order and effectively ruined his career. Other diplomats paid with their lives. Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German diplomat stationed in Copenhagen, took great personal risks to protect those under threat in the city.

None of these stories is previously untold, but the cumulative effect of their retelling is powerful. King draws on the standard resources of the documentary filmmaker: committed investigators who pursue the trail and discuss their findings; archive footage; still photography and documents; maps tracing journeys old and new; dramatic reconstructions; interviews with survivors or their descendants; visits to sites of past trauma or salvation and analogies with contemporary events.

Certain reviewers have been sceptical about the pairing of Gilbert and Nyombayire, but their different interaction styles inject the process of revisiting the past with warmth and variety. Others have objected to the interspersed reconstructions, though I found them unavoidable (unless one were to adopt the austere methodology of Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah) and often touching. For example, the row of shoes lined up along an embankment of the Danube in Budapest, paralleling a witness’s story of how those about to be executed there had to remove their footwear and clothing, was simple and effective.

Technically however, The Rescuers does have some problems with sound quality, particularly in the balancing of Gilbert’s voiceover with the occasionally intrusive musical score.

What, then, lies at the heart of The Rescuers? It is a testament to the courage of certain people, not merely confined to diplomats.

Like most documentaries, The Rescuers has its elisions and blind spots. A visit by Gilbert – “a committed Zionist”, as The Daily Telegraph observed in its recent obituary – and Nyombayire to an Israeli memorial devoted to lost communities raises questions about Zionism, diplomacy and Palestinian activism that, if pursued further, would bend the film’s trajectory.

The parallels and differences between the Jewish Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda and Darfur provide a generalised sense of “the continuing relevance of the story of the rescuers”, but their similarities are really only dealt with in a brief interview with Roméo Dallaire, the former Canadian commander of the UN forces in Rwanda.

The separate question of the non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution and the extent to which they were given diplomatic assistance, is posed occasionally, usually in terms of political activists, nationalists and “subversives”, but remains very much in the background. The documentary is already brimming with compelling individual stories; it strategically overlays the rescuers’ dilemmas and achievements with allusions to other, ongoing, brutalities. Yet sometimes, the documentary feels in need of further elaboration and challenges.

What, then, lies at the heart of The Rescuers? It is a testament to the courage of certain people, not merely confined to diplomats. King himself has continually pondered “the mystery of goodness” and humanitarianism – the question of why Sugihara, for example, was moved to decisive action by the suffering of those around him in Kaunas, when so many of his fellow diplomats were more pragmatic and cautious. He was brave and honourable –“righteous” as the State of Israel puts it.

If we were to draw parallels with the current state of human rights in Australia, and ask what we think today’s diplomats should be aiming for in terms of the plight of refugees seeking to enter Australia – whether, in practical terms, there is a place for “rescuers” in today’s diplomatic community – the question brings up the fact of new technologies.

The touching and laborious work of Duckwitz, Sugihara, Ülkümen, Bingham and others in preparing and signing “papers” that would last long enough for those in peril to gain a safe haven has been overtaken by digital checking and revision of documentation that means that governments can reach out instantly to prohibit “illegals” and undesirables.

And yet, over and above the painstaking processes it describes, and even beyond its specific historical context, The Rescuers is an inspiring reminder that individual courage, perseverance, and the willingness to stand up to ostensibly unbeatable systems can still influence the history and implementation of human rights.