At the start of “The Testament,” the hero, Dr. Yoel Halberstam, is being interviewed by a European journalist about his Holocaust research, which is stirring controversy in Austria. They talk about the Holocaust and the truth. It would be hard to find two more picked-over subjects in Israel nowadays, but by the end of the movie, director Amichai Greenberg will have you convinced that both are quite relevant to the present day.
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An Israeli-Austrian co-production, the film is based on a real incident that took place in the town of Rechnitz on the border between Austria and Hungary near the end of World War II. Some of the details have been changed, blurred or dramatized, but the heart of the story remains: In March 1945, the town’s elite hosted a ball in honor of the Nazis, as the Red Army approached. The highlight of the event, which was entirely a local initiative put together by well-off Austrians, was a hunt – with Jews as the prey. The rich townsfolk took up arms and cold-bloodedly murdered about 200 forced laborers who were being held there. Just because they felt like it and because they knew there would be no consequences. Attempts to research the incident after the war and locate evidence led to the deaths and disappearances of witnesses. The episode remained obscure.
Greenberg, making his first feature film here, stayed very close to the original story, including the date of the massacre, although the name of the locale was changed to the fictional village of Lensdorf. This case becomes an obsession for Holocaust scholar Yoel (Ori Pfeffer), who has been trying unsuccessfully to locate a mass grave in the fields near Lensdorf. After 21 failed attempts over many years, he is suddenly facing a deadline, because a local building project is about to go ahead. Yoel has to act quickly, before the fields are covered over with cement and asphalt, leaving no trace of the horror that took place there.
With the support of his research institute in Jerusalem, Yoel embarks on a race against the clock to find documents and witnesses that will lead him to the smoking gun buried in the earth. He may be Haredi, but his interest in graves doesn’t exactly derive from Jewish tradition. Yoel does feel that his faith is pushing him to uncover the truth, but in fact it’s an obstacle. Truth, which he sees as absolute and objective, is his real motivating force. He is first of all a historian, and after that a Jew.
So when the search for classified testimony from Holocaust survivors leads him to a family secret that makes him question his whole identity – the kind of secret that any reasonable person would bury and suppress – he finds himself on a collision course with his family, his community and his faith. The professional becomes personal, and vice-versa.
The potential tension between personal identity and the truth that might contradict it is not a new subject, and “The Testament” does not say anything really new about it, but does present it in an interesting way. In terms of pace, plot twists and attention to small details, the movie feels something like a television police or legal procedural, with the historian standing in for the detective and the physical evidence at the scene replaced by dusty archives.
The witnesses are another story, and the challenge they present to the investigator has to do with the natural difficulty of recalling specific details of a certain night 70 years ago. Yoel easily embodies the familiar figure of the obsessive investigator. He’s depicted as an odd character in both of the worlds in which he lives – the religious-family world and the professional-investigative world. Yet the attempt to depict him this way is a bit clumsy. We learn about him already in the opening shot when we see him riding a bicycle. You can feel how much the filmmakers enjoyed the image of the Haredi pedaling along, helmet on head, beard flying in the wind. As if just waiting for the viewers to say – Wow, look at that, a Haredi on a bicycle. This is apparently Greenberg’s version of the clichéd American or British detective who doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules.
The qualities that make Ori Pfeffer’s character convincing as an obsessive investigator who can’t let go don’t make the transition so well when the plot shifts to the more emotionally complicated family angle. As he cares for his mother, and for his son, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah, the process Yoel undergoes after learning the family secret also becomes a mystery, but primarily for the audience. He goes through changes, that’s clear, but without us understanding why, or wanting to identify with him.
This is all the more problematic when there are no other characters of similar heft. The elderly witnesses add an emotional depth that’s lacking in the rest of the film, but these are small parts that are quickly over with.
All in all, though, “The Testament” manages to avoid the familiar tropes of Holocaust movies and to provide a surprising viewpoint. Dealing with truth and memory, with the personal versus the collective story, is nothing new either. But Greenberg understands that the Holocaust is a broad subject, containing countless stories that aren’t limited to one genre or another. Where others would see a moldy archive and a bunch of aged witnesses, this director sees an unsolved mass murder mystery. It’s like a combination of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and Yad Vashem, and it’s effective. And he has also identified a common denominator among Jews of all kinds – the assumption that the whole world is anti-Semitic.