Reinterpretation, by Dayne Linford
Following the credits, Nicky’s Family begins with a small disclaimer – “The film is a free dramatisation of real events from the years 1938 – 2010.” (sic), the sight of which immediately informed me that, at best, I was going to have a very divided opinion of this film. I was looking forward to a documentary on an interesting subject, but now thought I’d be getting nothing but a series of reenactments. Luckily, Nicky’s Family is still more or less a traditional documentary, with interviews, archival footage, the whole nine yards, but unluckily it also keeps to its promise of “dramatisation” with extensive, terrible reenactment footage.
The film has as its subject Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker, and the 669 Czech and Slovak Jewish children he rescued from Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Their story is truly incredible, inspiring and very worthy of a documentary, to say the least. The treatment here is…less inspiring. Nicky’s Family is particularly frustrating viewing as it alternates between incredibly touching interviews and recollections from Winton and the rescued children, to “dramatising” those recollections in truly terrible fashion. It would seem to me that historical documentary filmmaking is well past the arrival of Ken Burns and should therefore never, ever, ever see any reenactments ever again, but apparently some feel otherwise. This is doubly unfortunate in a film like Nicky’s Family, where an incredible story is consistently undercut with laughably bad reenactments, thus cheating the audience out of the legitimate emotion and betraying the vulnerability of the subjects in the interviews. As the film interviews these now well past fully grown men and women about their last days with their parents, nearly all of whom were killed in Hitler’s death camps, it is more than enough to let their words stand, unsullied by “free interpretation,” to keep the camera still as they remember those tragic events and watch the emotions play across their features.
When the film allows the emotions their place and keeps from cutting away from the subjects, it achieves great power in the simple dignity of the human form, in the sorrow and the triumph of what happened to these men and women, allowing them the space to express themselves and work through those emotions. However, due to numerous, constant reenactments, questionable music choices and other directorial decisions that betray either near complete incompetence or a lack of trust in what is so obviously a worthy subject, the film pulls the viewer out of these moments of emotional connection, depriving us of the very real and very necessary human feeling derived from watching the actual Nicholas Winton, the actual children as they go about their lives, which feeling, which connection is the entire reason we keep watching the documentary in the first place.
Despite all that’s wrong with this piece in terms of filmmaking, the subject is strong, powerful and interesting enough that I can recommend this documentary to those interested in it. You’ll have to work through some really bad sections, but in all the story is incredibly powerful, especially as the documentary moves out of WWII, and therefore out of reenactments, and into the actions and decisions of the rescued children, and their children and grandchildren, many dedicating their lives to charitable causes out of respect for the work of Nicholas Winton and the sacrifice of their parents.
That all being said, the work tends to veer into hagiography, offering Winton as a complete good, without exception, even as it quickly mentions a fairly long term, potentially lethal affair with a Nazi spy. While I’m sure there are little to no particularly nasty skeletons in this closet, Winton remains human, and time spent on the details of his life and behavior would’ve been fascinating and well worth whatever few minutes would be devoted to it. Altogether, the documentary as a whole would’ve benefited from more human detail, particularly in terms of moral grays surrounding a program treated, possibly justifiably, as an unalloyed good. In an interview, Winton mentions meeting several Jewish rabbis who were distressed by his program of saving these children, which, since the Nazis wouldn’t give up the adults and since the British would only accept children, involved the hopefully temporary adoption of these Jewish children by Christian families. Winton dismisses the rabbis by pointing out that putting them with Christians is better than allowing them to die, which is true but also shows a certain English dismissal of the customs and values of other people. When dealing with a mass exodus of Jewish children, given up by their parents to save them from the Nazi state, to be raised by Christians, many becoming Christian in the process, some sensitivity to that question would not be remiss. Though Winton’s actions were laudable and many hundreds of those he rescued revere him as a foster father, there are complicated issues at heart here and time could be spent on the plight of Judaism and Jews in general after the Holocaust and following the charity of men like Winton. As a treatment of this subject, more time should’ve been spent here.
All in all, Nicky’s Family is both an awful and a wonderful film, a powerful, touching documentary on the work of one man to save hundreds of children in a moment of international despair. It is also terrible filmmaking, clumsy, obvious, and patronizing. If you can make it past the latter, the former is well worth your time, but a better treatment would be wonderful. For now, despite the many pitfalls found here, this is an important story that deserves it’s telling, and for that simple reason, it’s a film worth seeing.