If exploitation director Jag Mundhra can make a film about domestic abuse among South Asians (PROVOKED), why shouldn't former sexploitation filmmaker Matt Cimber make a movie about the Holocaust? Cimber, who began his career directing such notorious hard-core "white coaters" as MAN AND WIFE (1969), SHE AND HE, THE SENSUOUS FEMALE and the anthropological "documentary" AFRICANUS SEXUALIS (BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL) (all 1970), gives "legit" filmmaking a shot (and no, 1982's Pia Zadora vehicle BUTTERFLY doesn't count), with good intentions, no discernable budget and only partial success.
Kovno, Lithuania, 1941: Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Miriam (Ariana Savalas, who bears a striking resemblance to her famous father, Telly) is the eldest daughter of an affluent Jewish shopkeeper (Stephen Mendel) who hopes he and his family will survive the coming Nazi onslaught through agreeable nonresistance. No such luck. The Germans break through the Russian line faster than anyone expects, and Lithuanian partisan thugs (one of whom is played by Reno 911!'s Carlos Alazraqui, of all people) invade the Schafer home looking for the diamonds they believe all Jews hoard. After conducting full-cavity searches on Miriam and her mother, the Lithuanians leave them to the Germans, who herd them out of their homes and into a Jewish ghetto in a poor village across the river. Forced to work in a boot factory, Miriam is peed on by drunken SS officers and treated with contempt by the non-Jews who labor alongside her. Miriam understandably loses her faith, and decides to exploit the fact that without her yellow Star of David armband, she's often mistaken for Aryan. Not long after her mother is taken to the notorious Tenth Fort, from which no one ever returns, Miriam is rescued by a band of underground Jewish fighters working to rescue Jews whom they know could be placed in the homes of Christians willing to risk their lives and the lives of their families. In August 1944 Miriam is sent to live with a Catholic pharmacist, Mr. Bijaikis (Peter J. Lucas). Posing as a distant cousin named Margarita, Miriam works at Bijaikis' drugstore while serving as a companion to his wife, Margritas (Beata Pozniak), whom she befriends. Grateful for their kindness and courage, Miriam doesn't resist when Bijaikis forces himself upon her, and is soon pregnant with his child. Embittered when Bijaikis refuses to marry her after Magritas dies -- he, too, proves to be an anti-Semite -- Miriam manages to survive the war, only to find that regaining her true identity as a Jew is far from easy in what's now the Soviet Union.
Taking a page from Warren Beatty's REDS (1981), Cimber intermittently interrupts his dramatization with modern-day interviews with people whom we can only assume are real-life survivors; unfortunately, they're not identified until the very end. With its stock-sounding score, cheap production design, anachronistic costumes and locations that look more like Southern California than Eastern Europe, one half-expects Ilsa the She-Wolf of the SS to make an entrance, riding crop in hand. Cimber and cowriter John F. Goff's script is, however, based on true-life events, and even though the lives of so-called "hidden children" is far better explored in the excellent 2003 documentary SECRET LIVES: HIDDEN CHILDREN & THEIR RESCUERS DURING WWII, it’s a forgotten piece of history worth recounting. One only regrets it wasn't better recounted than it is here. leave a comment --Ken Fox