Canadian director honors father, murdered Romanian Jews

It’s well known that the Nazis devised an extraordinarily efficient system to implement the Final Solution. Not as well known is the fact that the fascists in Romania “improvised” a similar system, without the benefit of a grand institutional plan.

They nonetheless managed to kill 400,000 Jews, which gives some hint of their enthusiasm and savagery. It also tells us that there are some chapters of the Holocaust that have yet to be fully explored.

Documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has a personal stake in all this — his father took a bullet in the chest during a 1941 massacre of hundreds of Romanian Jews. Joseph Jacobovici survived and, after joining the Red Army to fight the Nazis, eventually made his way to Israel and then Canada, where he raised a family.

Simcha Jacobovici revisits this history, both the personal and the big picture, in “Charging the Rhino,” a valuable yet frustrating 50-minute film he made for Canadian television in 2006 with Bruce Thorson. It receives its U.S. television premiere Monday, Feb. 18 on the Sundance Channel.

Jacobovici scored a hit on the festival circuit back in 1991 with “Deadly Currents,” a controversial documentary about the future of Israel. Recently, he has become a somewhat familiar face as the producer and on-camera guide for the small-screen programs “The Naked Archaeologist” and “The Last Tomb of Jesus.”

He is a smart, aggressive and unwaveringly self-confident fellow, but Jacobovici proves too clever for his own good in “Charging the Rhino.” Determined to avoid the clichés of the Holocaust documentary, the first-person narrative and the return-to-the-Old-Country documentary, he and Thorson construct a roundabout, pseudo-metaphorical structure that proves repetitive instead of revealing.

Joseph Jacobovici’s war and postwar experience is compelling, not least because he was plainly a tough, athletic and resourceful man. Also fascinating is the chunk of Romanian history describing the World War II-era battle for control between the fascist head of the country and the leader of the Iron Guard (the equivalent of the Brown Shirts) — underscored by the fact that the Guard is still extant, and faithfully denying the Holocaust.

But the filmmakers overplay their hand with the story of Joseph’s nephew Sacha, who stayed in Romania after the war. Sacha thrived for a while under communism, apparently, even as Romania embraced a kind of national amnesia about its fascist period and the despicable crimes that took place.

“Charging the Rhino” makes extensive use of a 1960 Romanian film called “Reconstruction,” which depicts the planning and execution of a bank heist, and the trial of the perpetrators. One was Sacha; all were Jews. The actual facts — about Sacha, the holdup and the trial — are now impossible to ascertain, but the filmmakers advance a theory that some viewers will find credible and moving.

Most, however, will find this section a rather ham-fisted way of addressing the anti-Semitism that forced Jews to leave in such numbers in the intervening decades that fewer than 10,000 Jews now remain in Romania.

Finally, bringing the film full circle, Jacobovici carries out his own act of commemoration on the site of the massacre that his father survived. The scene would be far more powerful if we could hear someone’s voice — local reporters, government officials or ordinary citizens — other than the filmmaker’s, and if we weren’t left to wonder what happened in the aftermath of Jacobovici’s deed.

“Charging the Rhino,” which takes its title from the metaphor that Romanian-born playwright Eugene Ionesco created in his surrealist classic “Rhinoceros,” is full of provocative bits and potentially rich pieces. But it suffers from a ponderous structure and an over-reliance on Simcha Jacobovici’s deliberate narration, which has the irritating quality of a teacher talking down to fifth-graders.

“Charging the Rhino” airs 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18 on the Sundance Channel.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He 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.