Title: It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl
Director: Richard Trank
It is probably the second-most famous quote involving a dream: “If you will it, it is no dream.” It was the rallying cry of a different people — that of Zionist Jews longing to establish their own state, eternally etched into history — when written by Theodor Herzl in 1902. Richard Trank’s documentary channels Herzl’s immortal phrase to tell the story of a man with momentous ideals and a revolutionary approach to combating anti-Semitism and establishing a brave new future for the Jewish people, paying tribute both to a man and to his enduring legacy.
Like many historical figures whose names are often invoked, Herzl did not live to see his goals accomplished. After Herzl’s death from heart failure in 1904 at the age of 44, it would take more than forty years for the State of Israel to be founded. It Is No Dream begins at a crucial moment in Herzl’s life, when French Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus was framed and persecuted for treason, triggering waves of anti-Semitic sentiment throughout Europe. Long before the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, Herzl worked towards a solution to what he called “the Jewish question” (a phrase given a negative connotation by the Nazis). He was, indisputably, a man several decades ahead of his time.
Though he lived over a century ago, Herzl and his ideas remain entirely relevant today. A reading of an excerpt from his 1895 pamphlet The Jewish State is accompanied in the film’s opening moments by scenes of present-day anti-Semitic graffiti and shots of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Herzl’s goals are presented through the lens of a safe haven, a place to provide safety and security for the Jewish people from all enemies calling for their denigration and destruction, rather than as an aggressive or political call for nationalism.
With some found footage and a handful of choice photographs to tell the story, the narration in It Is No Dream is key. The selection of voices to tell the story and to portray Herzl’s words appears deliberate and is certainly dramatic and effective . Neither Ben Kingsley nor Christoph Waltz is Jewish, yet they both have well-known cinematic connections to the Jewish people. Among Kingsley’s most famous roles is that of Jewish businessman Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and American audiences know Waltz best for his Oscar-winning turn as a Nazi nicknamed the “Jew Hunter” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Producer and writer Rabbi Marvin Hier also noted at a screening in April that Waltz’s son from his first marriage is an Orthodox rabbi.
Jewish heritage, however, is not central to the themes of It Is No Dream, even though it is its primary focus. The film paints Herzl as a unifier, describing his theatrical staging of the first Zionist Congress and his perception by others as the “King of the Jews.” Religious practice is rarely mentioned, as Herzl was not a religious man. As portrayed and profiled in this documentary, Herzl was a statesman and a trailblazer, whose cause was intrinsically relevant and important.
While it offers a complete biography of Herzl during his lifetime, the film stops almost as soon as he dies, after unsuccessfully trying to establish a Jewish homeland in first Palestine and then Uganda, without chronicling the run-up to the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of a Jewish state. The Holocaust is mentioned as an event Herzl had always feared, and the film serves as a cautionary tale against segregation and ethnic cleansing, both of which might have been avoided with a greater eye to historical persecution. It Is No Dream is an affectionate tribute to a man, and a universal story of perseverance.