Protocols of Zion unravels into meek documentary

It would be difficult to imagine a more frustrating viewing experience than Marc Levin’s “Protocols of Zion.”

The title of this feature-length documentary prepares us for a scrupulous, full-frontal debunking of the infamous anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Such a film, done well, would serve as a definitive reference guide that could be used in schools for decades to come.

Instead, “Protocols of Zion,” which opens in theaters Friday, Nov. 11, prior to its eventual cable broadcast on HBO, is an anecdotal, first-person travelogue of passing interest and no lasting value. In the category of missed opportunities, it gets four stars.

The book, for those who are blissfully unaware, has been circulating in one form or another for more than a hundred years and purports to contain the detailed, nefarious blueprint for Jewish control of the world. At least that’s the way it’s sold to an endless stream of naïve, ignorant and easily manipulated people around the world.

(If, like me, you’re wondering when you start your new six-figure job as vice president and chief exploiter of gentiles, West Coast division, the only conceivable answer is that another Jew beat you to the position.)

OK, anti-Semitism is nothing to joke about. Especially after the events of Sept. 11 spawned the canard that no Jews died in the World Trade Center, and gave some people more “evidence” to fuel their suspicion and hate.

Shocked by the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in New York in the months after the attack, Levin set out to meet and confront a wide cross section of people who subscribe to anti-Jewish beliefs. The lineup includes white supremacists, evangelical Christians, militant Islamists, Palestinian expatriates and bitter African Americans.

The veteran filmmaker serves as our on-camera guide, challenging the hate-spewers and rumormongers to express their ridiculous philosophies out loud. He seems to harbor the hope that once people meet and debate an actual Jew, their belief systems will implode.

Yes, prejudice is often based on abstractions and can be shaken by direct experience with a member of the target group. So perhaps Levin shifted the views of, oh, 50-odd people he met and argued with.

But “Protocols of Zion” will have no effect on a bigot who stumbles across the film on television. (There are no doubt some Jew-haters among HBO’s affluent, educated subscribers, but it doesn’t seem like the best outlet to reach the masses.) All too often, the film evokes a man-on-the-street approach that serves up colorful opinions in lieu of unshakable information.

Granted, “Protocols” does offer a moving response to the claim that Jews weren’t killed on 9/11. And the documentary, which premiered out of competition at Sundance and screened once in Berkeley during the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this summer, recalls how the tycoon Henry Ford used to hand out the “Protocols” upon request with the purchase of a new automobile.

Those who say “know your enemy” may find “Protocols of Zion” to be a useful, up-to-date survey of the usual suspects. Frankly, I have no great desire to better understand anti-Semites. I do wish, though, for a fact-packed rebuttal of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and the other lies that fuel anti-Semitism.

“Protocols of Zion” opens Friday, Nov. 11 at the Lumiere in San Francisco.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.