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Originally published Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 3:03 PM

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Movie review

'Killing Kasztner' documents Jewish man who negotiated with Nazis

"Killing Kasztner" is a documentary about Rezso Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew who saved more than 1,600 lives by negotiating with the Nazis but was accused of selling his soul to the devil in the process.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Killing Kasztner,' a documentary by Gaylen Ross. 116 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In English and Hebrew, with English subtitles where needed. Northwest Film Forum through Thursday. Ross will be present at screenings throughout the opening weekend.

"I came to Israel to find a hero of the Holocaust," says filmmaker Gaylen Ross at the beginning of her documentary "Killing Kasztner." What she found was something infinitely more complicated.

Rezso Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, undeniably saved the lives of more than 1,600 men, women and children during World War II when he negotiated with Nazi Adolf Eichmann to send a "rescue train" filled with Jews from Budapest to Switzerland in 1944. Yet he was also accused of the murder of many thousands by withholding information about the Auschwitz death camp, and branded, in a landmark libel case filed after the war, as a man who had "sold his soul to the devil" as a collaborator with Nazis. He was murdered in 1957, outside his Tel Aviv home, by a young right-wing extremist.

And so his legacy, more than half a century after his death, is murky. On the one side: those 1,600 people, now multiplied by future generations, who owe their lives to his intervention. We see them in the film, both in blurry black-and-white photos from the war and smiling color footage today. On the other: the accusations, the inconvenient fact that Kasztner defended several legendary Nazis in the Nuremberg trials (and lied about it in his libel trial) — was that blackmail, the film asks, or a gentlemen's agreement hammered out during the negotiations for the train?

Though its structure at times feels a little haphazard, "Killing Kasztner" is crammed with vivid detail: a chilling interview with Kasztner's assassin, now a free man; the angry eyes of Kasztner's daughter, who resents the shame attached to her father's legacy; Kasztner's neglected gravesite, far from the city; veterans of the "Kasztner train" who describe themselves as feeling like "second-class survivors;" a tense encounter at a Holocaust museum in Hungary, as Kasztner's descendants ask why there is no tribute to him.

Did he truly sell his soul, or was he just, as a family member says in the film, the wrong kind of hero? The film fascinates even as the man himself remains elusive. Ultimately, we're haunted by a final quote in the film, which resonates on several levels: "Every single life is an entire world."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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