Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

The story of the man behind iconic photographs of the vanished is an important addition to history.

By Nora Lee Mandel

(at 2024 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film at Lincoln Center/ The Jewish Museum)

Directed by Laura Bialis
Written by Sophie Sartain
Produced by Laura Bialis and Roberta Grossman
USA. 95 mins. Not Rated
With: Philip Mogilnitsky, Lily Vaknin, Lucas Meisel, and July Hodara
Released by Abramorama - Opens in New York January 19, 2024; Opens in Los Angeles February 2, 2024

The frank bio-documentary Vishniac adds needed complexity behind the select photographs of Roman Vishniac that have been treated as iconic nostalgia. His most well-known book is A Vanished World, published in 1983, crowned by an Elie Wiesel essay, popularized in a traveling exhibition through the 1980s, and its images of poor pious Eastern European Jews of the 1930s exhibited in the collection of Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

His daughter Mara Vishniac Kohn (above) narrates a more human and thus more involving story about a complicated man. Not just that his oeuvre was more diverse. Not only did he document far more varied Jews before and after the war. After emigration and family disruption, he was finally able to pursue his intellectual interests. Director Laura Bialis reveals his and his family’s lives from her access over three years to the complete Vishniac archive of over 23,000 items. She also well illustrates times and places with other apt archival footage and visual context.

Vishniac first studied how to use cameras and microscopes within a comfortable childhood in Moscow, before and after the Revolution. He left Russia to take his bride, Luta Bagg, a Latvian Jew, to the lively Berlin of the very photogenic Weimar Republic, where his father kept trying to set him up in business.

Born in 1926, his daughter Mara has vivid memories of their large apartment (subsidized by her well-to-do grandparents) filled with the delights of animal cages, aquariums, and viewing equipment (he was already experimenting with cameras on microscopes), as well as a giant sandbox and garden to plant and explore – none of which interested her mother. Her childhood with her older brother Wolf and her squabbling parents is portrayed in re-enactments so credible that I’m not sure which photographs have the authentic father and daughter. With the rise of the Nazis, her father used her as a prop when he chronicled Nazi propaganda posted around the city. Mara also remembers the absurd antisemitic caricatures in her school texts before she and all the Jewish children were expelled and restricted from public places. She was only vaguely aware of her father’s non-Jewish lover Edith, as her parents led separate lives, coming together to argue.

As the only work for Jews now available was with Jewish organizations, historian Hasia Diner (We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962) notes that American Jewish institutions were well aware of the crisis and were raising alarms. Vishniac was first commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Paris to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. While certainly the more miserable they looked the better for fundraising, historians see his work as parallel to the Farm Security Administration documentary photographers in the U.S., like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Maps show how far he traveled by train through rural and urban Poland, Austria, Hungary, and up to the Carpathian Mountains. Read aloud, he wrote of making it to his grandfather’s synagogue in Slonim (now in Belarus) and to Vilna (now Vilnius in Lithuania). Surprise - he also occasionally used a movie camera, and lively footage is included. Through 1938, the Joint commissioned him to photograph the desperation of German Jewish refugees on the Polish border at Zbaszyn, and the optimism of young Jews preparing for emigration to Palestine in Werkdrop Wieringen, a Zionist agricultural training camp in the Netherlands. (Jewish Communists in Warsaw similarly showcased “the New Jew” in Children Must Laugh (Mir Kumen On)).

Mara was with him in his home dark room as he developed these negatives. She remembers the suspense of watching the people emerge from the chemicals. Compared to her assimilated family and Jewish neighborhood in Berlin, they looked “exotic”. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an expert on images of Eastern European Jewry, describes these photographs as very much the “western European view of seeing them as poor and backward.” While he wrote of being stirred by their deep spirituality, the selective images would project Hasidim/traditional Orthodox as the primary victims of persecution – and reinforce images from the Nazis’ notorious propaganda film The Eternal Jew, which are often used in documentaries without that attribution.

Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 stopped these projects, as well as suspending the Vishniacs’ divorce. Mara details the suspensefully circuitous routes it took for all of her family to flee safely (her mother’s Latvian origins helped), let alone her father getting his negatives to Paris, and then to the U.S. While family tensions raged in New York, academic institutions displayed Vishniac’s photographs to help galvanize relief efforts, with his imaginatively poignant captions. (At Princeton, he barged in on Einstein to photograph him.) After the war, Vishniac was assigned to document Jews in Displaced Persons camps, then made it to devastated Berlin – where he found Edith and married her.

With his new wife, and somewhat estranged from his children, he left the past behind to look through the microscopic lens, fulfilling the lesson about nature he had stressed to his daughter: “The closer you get, the more beautiful it is”. As an aggressively self-promoting science photographer/filmmaker, he exaggerated his experiences in every interview, from Life Magazine to TV. A 1968 NBC program termed it his “Big Little World”. (The difficulty in preserving these experimental color images is not mentioned.)

When he died at age 92 in 1990, it was Mara who found herself responsible for his legacy. I am particularly impressed with a book she co-edited in 1999 Children of A Vanished World that shows more girls and in secular activities within a Yiddish context than the previous selections. Exhibitions and other publications followed, but most of his work was still just in storage. Before her passing in 2018 at age 92, Mara resolved care of the entire collection of over 35,000 items, including his correspondence, about 6,500 prints, 10,000 slides, 40 albums of negatives, 20 binders of contact sheets, 1,500 scientific prints and 400 audiovisual recordings, as The Roman Vishniac Archive of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley.

Almost 100 years since those famous photographs caught those who would be disappeared, the story of the man behind the lens is an important addition to history.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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