Movie review: 'It Is No Dream' is an insightful history lesson

Bob Tremblay

I am going to plead ignorance (readers can insert snide comment here) and confess that I had no idea who Theodor Herzl was before I saw "It Is No Dream," a documentary about his life.

Herzl, for the uninformed such as myself, is considered, depending on the source you cite, the founder of political Zionism. The film’s press notes call him "the father of the modern state of Israel."

The movie thus serves as an educational tool and, for those familiar with Herzl, it provides an insightful examination of a fascinating man.

Born in Budapest in 1860, Herzl was raised in a traditional yet assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. How "assimilated"? He wasn’t bar mitzvahed. He was confirmed. He also initially advocated the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity as a solution to the growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

All that changed when Herzl witnessed the trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus in Paris, where Herzl was working at the time as a foreign correspondent for an Austrian newspaper.

Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of treason, became a lightning rod for anti-Semitic sentiment with French crowds yelling "Death to the Jew!"

Seeing that assimilation was not the answer to the Jewish question, Herzl advocated instead the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the biblical land of his ancestors. The remainder of the film follows Herzl on this quest. To say he was determined is a vast understatement. The film’s title comes from a line in one of his books, "If you will it, it is no dream."

Directed and co-written by Richard Trank, the film has a Ken Burns’ look to it, complete with talking heads, including Israeli president Shimon Peres, period photographs and a massive amount of research. Just don’t expect a lot of era film footage, which considering the time period is not surprising.

The film is narrated by Ben Kingsley with Herzl’s words read by Christoph Waltz. Movie buffs might know that Kingsley played Itzhak Stern, the accountant to Oskar Schindler in "Schindler’s List," while Waltz won an Oscar playing a Nazi Jew hunter in "Inglourious Basterds." Interesting casting.

As the film is a production from the documentary film division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, viewers expecting a balanced portrait of Zionism might be left wanting. Since Zionism didn’t technically begin with Herzl, I wouldn’t have minded some background. The film doesn’t spent much time talking about the Palestinians, either. The tragic fate of Herzl’s children could have been expanded, too.

Regarding the Dreyfus affair, the film neglects to point out that Dreyfus was eventually exonerated. Also, for the record, Herzl wasn’t the only person outraged by Dreyfus’ bogus conviction. Yes, there were a few French folk who weren’t anti-Semitic bozos, including author Emile Zola who defended Dreyfus in the famous letter "J’Accuse."

What I found incredible was how close Uganda became to becoming the Jewish homeland.

Sadly, Herzl would not live to see his dream become a reality as he died in 1904, four decades before the state of Israel was created.

One can only wonder what would have happened if Herzl had succeeded in his goal during his lifetime, long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Herzl was prophetic when he predicted that Jews would encounter violence in Europe.

"It Is No Dream"

Grade: B