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Hollywood’s Oscar-Winning Rabbi Takes Jewish History to the Stars

Marvin Hier puts two decades of documentary filmmaking to work—but for what cause?

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J.J. Abrams, Tom Cruise, and Rabbi Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Annual National Tribute Dinner, May, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Moriah’s documentaries, which typically cost around $1 million each to produce, are paid for through donations from supporters. Trank is the house writer and director, having spent more than three decades working for the Wiesenthal Center and Moriah. He was hired in 1981 after having interviewed Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper for a radio show. At first, Trank worked on Holocaust survivors’ oral histories, before branching out to short videos, and eventually to feature-length documentaries. Trank was a producer on the Wiesenthal Center’s second film, Echoes That Remain (1991), and Liberation (1994), which had initially been intended as an exhibit for the Museum of Tolerance. “And then we realized that something like that is a temporary exhibit. You’re investing a huge amount of money. It’s in one place. It would make much more sense to do it as a film. It could have an endless platform,” said Trank.

Hier said he spends most Thursday afternoons with Trank and the Moriah team, looking at footage and discussing potential changes. Speaking to the filmmakers responsible for Hier’s two Oscars, though, provided a different take on his involvement in the artistic process. “We met a little bit at the beginning, but he had very little to do with the film,” said Mark Jonathan Harris, the director of The Long Way Home and currently a filmmaker and distinguished professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “Very little indeed,” said Arnold Schwartzman, the director of Genocide, about Hier’s day-to-day involvement in production. “The rabbi in fact has received two Oscars [for work] which quite frankly, in terms of creative input, is virtually nonexistent.”

***

Hier’s best-known film, for which he received one of his Oscars, was Genocide—a project he got creatively involved with when Simon Wiesenthal grew agitated over, of all things, an illustration of Raoul Wallenberg that was set to appear in the film. Wallenberg, Wiesenthal insisted, would never appear with a hat. Hier pleaded with Schwartzman for months to remove Wallenberg’s hat until photographic evidence, brought back by Hier’s colleague Rabbi Abraham Cooper from a Helsinki tribunal on Wallenberg’s mysterious postwar fate, demonstrated incontrovertibly that the Swedish diplomat had, indeed, worn a hat.

The Wallenberg dispute was merely a warmup for the conflict between the director and Hier over credit for Genocide. Hier called Schwartzman and told him that the board had suggested he receive a cowriter’s credit. Schwartzman argued that historian Martin Gilbert had written the bulk of the script, but after Hier convinced Gilbert to share the credit, the director agreed to the change. Later, Hier would also successfully claim a producer’s credit—the one that would enable him to receive an Oscar for the film.

A filmmaker and graphic designer who was a protégé of Saul Bass, Schwartzman gave Genocide more verve than its successors. This is in no small part due to Welles, whose Charles Foster Kane voice conveys just the right tone of sneering incredulity at the failings of Western governments to prevent the slaughter of the Jews of Europe. Schwartzman treats the screen like a blackboard, covering it with dynamic graphics and panning across still photographs. The breaking glass at a wedding ceremony becomes the breaking glass of Kristallnacht, and a graphic shows a man putting on tefillin made of barbed wire.

“There was no state of Israel then,” Welles offers as part of the explanation for why no other countries extended a helping hand to the Jewish people, underscoring the fundamental point of Moriah’s future films: that the state of Israel is the Jews’ protection against future Holocausts. “No one is responsible?” Welles asks near Genocide’s conclusion, incredulous and appalled. “It just happened? A freak accident along the road of history?” Wiesenthal himself appears in response at the film’s end, placing a slip of paper in the Western Wall that reads, “I AM MY BROTHER’S KEEPER.”

Despite having directed the film, Harris received no Oscar for The Long Way Home. Harris is philosophical about the contretemps, but Schwartzman, who was then chairman of the Academy’s documentary executive committee, changed the rules after The Long Way Home to ensure that one of the two Oscar recipients for Best Documentary must be the film’s director.

Director of the Museum of Tolerance Liebe Geft, actress Sharon Stone, and Rabbi Marvin Hier in Los Angeles, December 2010. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images For PFI)

After the success of The Long Way Home, Harris signed on to make a film for the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. “I said, if we did a film about this, we have to really try to look honestly at Israel, and the rabbi said, ‘warts and all.’ He agreed. But in the end, they didn’t like the warts,” said Harris. The initial goal for the film, titled A Dream No More, was to avoid the traditional spokesmen for Israel—the politicians and generals—and find unique voices like novelist David Grossman. According to Harris, Hier was nonplussed by the proposed film treatment: “What is this, twenty no-name Jews? Where’s my Paul Newman?”

Hier and Moriah were displeased with the first cut of A Dream No More and wound up firing Harris from the film. Harris chalks up his firing to the uncertain political climate in which his film was made. “It was two years after the assassination of Rabin,” said Harris. “It was a difficult time in Israel. People were still in mourning for Rabin. We tried to do an honest film looking at what Israel had accomplished in 50 years and some of the challenges that remain.” Harris believes that his film would have been entirely uncontroversial in Israel, but that the American dialogue about Israeli politics remains more closed-lipped. Ultimately, Moriah released In Search of Peace instead, covering the period from 1948 to 1967. “There was never a second film. Because the problems started in 1967,” said Harris. “I think they were afraid of alienating [then-prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. That’s my take.”

Harris went on to make another Academy Award-winning film, Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, and bears no ill will toward Hier or Moriah. “I’m grateful for the fact that they hired me to do The Long Way Home. And I’m grateful for the fact, even though A Dream No More was never released, it gave me, personally, a chance to see and experience Israel and meet people I otherwise would never have had the chance to do. I don’t regret that experience at all.”

***

Hier believes in film as a method of reaching unaffiliated Jews who otherwise might not be aware of their cultural and historical heritage. Making movies is merely the latest iteration of a millennium’s worth of technological adaptation on the part of Jews in the name of preserving their intellectual treasures. Hier gestures at his Schottenstein edition of the Talmud—handsome burgundy volumes that feature the traditional layout of the Talmud with a matching English translation on the opposite side of the page.

“Now look what happened to the Shas,” said Hier. “It was all in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the message to the Jewish community was, you either know those two languages, we’re happy to produce for you books, if you want to learn the Talmud, but if you’re insisting on English and notes, get lost. [Of course, the Talmud was originally written in Aramaic because it was the English of its day—the vernacular language most Jews spoke.] Then we changed our attitude. What do you mean, get lost? If they get lost, we get lost! So, they better not take that attitude. So, they said, let’s do it in English, with comprehensive notes.”

He went on. “The same thing about film. The Pew Report tells the following story. The good news is, we got, more or less, a million Jews that know they’re members of a shul, they pay their dues. The rest, they’re wandering somewhere. And they begin wandering right after their bar and bas mitzvahs. Who’s going to reach them? We live in a new generation where the Internet and the computer are dominant. Media is dominant. People are watching films. Who’s going to reach them with our story?”

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Hollywood’s Oscar-Winning Rabbi Takes Jewish History to the Stars

Marvin Hier puts two decades of documentary filmmaking to work—but for what cause?