When writer-director Richard Trank, who runs the film division at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was working on Walking with Destiny, his 2010 documentary about Winston Churchill, he came across some material on Churchill's relationship to Jewish history and Zionism that would ultimately inspire his next movie, It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl.
"In doing the research [for Walking], I began to think about the roots of political Zionism, which was something that Churchill had supported," says Trank, who won an Oscar for the 1997 documentary The Long Way Home. "As much as I know about Zionism, I knew little about Theodor Herzl, who was the founder. We did a little research and learned there was no film biography about Herzl. That's what led to the decision to make the movie. We uncovered this fascinating story about a man who was an assimilated Jew and was advocating Jews converting as a solution to the problem of anti-Semitism. He then popularized an idea that became one of the leading political movements in the world in the early 20th century."
Trank's film, which screens at 7 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. on Sunday at the Cleveland Museum of Art, commences with a lengthy (and rather dry) explanation of European history. Narrator Ben Kingsley explains how the well-publicized trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer accused of being a spy, upset Herzl so much that decided he had to create a Jewish state.
"I was concerned about overlooking something that was important to the historical record," says Trank in explaining his decision to begin the film with a brief history lesson. "My first drafts went much more in depth about the history at that time. It read well but didn't play well on screen. We decided to open up with the most dramatic thing that inspired Herzl. That was the Dreyfus trial that captivated everyone in France and Europe during that period of time. We started with that and then went back a little bit in time."
Trank recreates the period with painstaking attention to detail and Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz voices the part of Herzl while historical people and places are illustrated with rare footage of Western Europe originally lensed by the Lumiere Brothers.
"Part of what amazed me was here was this guy who most of his life tried to make his Jewishness less a part of his life," says Trank. "He discovered he really couldn't escape it. Then, when he tried to come up with an idea that would solve the horrible problem of anti-Semitism, it was because of the Dreyfus trial and seeing that Jews were stateless that lead to this epiphany he had. It was his relentlessness that really amazed me."