(Aired: April 8th, 1991)
Review by Jackie Stone
In “Never Forget" Leonard Nimoy took the lead role, and produced, the true story of Mel Mermelstein, a man who’s whole family had been snatched from their village in Hungary during World War Two and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. Mermelstein was the only survivor. The film itself takes place in California in the 1980’s, where we find Mermelstein now running a successful business and living in a nice house with a wife and four children. In his spare time he maintains a museum of the Holocaust containing memorabilia from the camps, and he gives talks in the area about existence in the concentration camps, keeping alive the memory of those who perished.
One of the children in the audience to whom he’s speaking about the Holocaust states that he’s heard it never happened, and Mermelstein says that he has heard this said. The action of the film takes off when, after he had an article about people who try to deny the Holocaust printed in the Jerusalem Post, he receives a letter from an organisation called the Institute for Historical Review. The letter states that they are offering a reward to anyone who can produce proof that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. They are offering this “reward” to Mermelstein should he be able to produce evidence which would be of a standard to stand up in a criminal court. Should he fail to produce the evidence, the letter said, they would “draw their own conclusions” and publicise his failure to the mass media.
Mermelstein regards the letter as an insult to himself and to the memory of his family. He is determined that he can not ignore the letter, and seeks advice on how he can best answer it. He’s advised by the Anti Deformation League that the challenge is phoney. They insist that the IHR don’t want the truth, they only want to set him up to fail and they will stack the deck against him and humiliate him. They state that they will not give the organisation the publicity they crave, and tell Mermelstein to ignore the letter. He gathers a long list of lawyers, all of whom refuse to take his case. He visits the Simon Wiesenthall Centre, who also advise him to drop the challenge and take no action. As they say, “If you get into a fight with these people and you lose, we all lose.” Everyone, including his wife, is highly supportive, but all agree that he should not give the IHR the publicity it clearly seeks.
He is eventually referred to a lawyer called Bill Cox. Cox’s initial reaction is the same as everyone else’s, and he tells Mermelstein to ignore the letter. However, Mermelstein’s outraged reaction to this strikes a chord with Cox, who thinks about it further and comes up with a plan. He says that, under American law, Mermelstein can regard the letter as an offer of a contract. He can reply, saying that he accepts their offer, and if they don’t answer the letter within thirty days then they are in breach of contract, and Mermelstein can sue them, in a proper court, rather than in one of their kangaroo courts to suffer humiliation on their terms. Cox’s guess is that the IHR will not reply – they don’t want the evidence they’ve ostensibly invited, they just want to publicise Mermelstein’s failure to produce it. Mermelstein takes this gamble and replies to the IHR, thereby committing himself to a long and exhausting legal battle which nearly tears his family apart.
From here on in the film Mermelstein is subject to increasing pressure. He receives a vile letter purporting to contain the hair of a Jewish gas victim. The family comes under threat. His youngest son asks him why he performs his talks to the local people, particularly schoolchildren, and keeps his museum going. Mermelstein’s voice becomes harsh with emotion, as he tells the boy that he can’t tell him the reason at the moment.
The 30 day limit is finally reached, no reply has been received, and Mermelstein and Bill Cox prepare to go to court. He and his wife visit an elderly female survivor to ask her to be a witness. It becomes very evident during their visit that this lady is far too emotionally damaged and afraid to be a reliable witness and they have to leave without her agreement. Mermelstein and Bill attend a public meeting of Holocaust deniers, and Mermelstein becomes so enraged that he has to be physically dragged out. The pressure builds and we see how it takes over his whole life. He misses his beloved daughter’s appearance in a play; he is distraught about this but she forgives him. He asks, “Why didn’t you remind me?” She says, “I did.”
His eldest son resents the amount of time and attention the pending trial is receiving and how it’s taken over the family. Mermelstein can’t help but notice his son’s attitude, but he can do nothing except listen to him. The nightmare grows. A dead pig is dumped on their lawn. His work begins to suffer, and he forgets to fulfil an order, potentially jeopardising his business. His wife is frantic about the effect on the children, and eventually asks him, “How long do they have to put up with your pain?”
It’s too much for Mermelstein. He contacts Bill Cox and says that he’s dropping the case. Cox tries to talk him out of it but Mermelstein won’t be swayed, and he tells the family that it’s all over. However, that same evening he receives a message that a fire has broken out at his museum, and he rushes over there accompanied by his eldest son. It was a false alarm, but Mermelstein and his son talk, in the quiet of the museum. For the first time, the boy discloses his horror of the Holocaust. He tells how he couldn’t bear to hear his father talk about it; how he’s been trying to turn his back on it, and he says that he’s ashamed of his own fears. He says that he’s actually proud of what his father is trying to achieve, and begs him not to drop the court case. Mermelstein continues with the legal action.
After a gruelling five hour pre trial hearing, fighting the coldly smiling IHR lawyer Mr Fusillier, Mermelstein realises for the first time that he could lose, and with that desperate awareness he finally goes into court. He’s eventually called to the stand by Bill Cox, who asks why he is taking this action. Here at last, closely watched by his children, Mermelstein tells the story of the promise he made to his father the last time he ever saw him in Auschwitz, the promise that he would never forget, never let the world forget the evil that was done there.
With all the evidence in, the verdict is delivered; that the court “takes judicial notice that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.” Mermelstein has won, and the Holocaust has for the first time become a part of legal history.
The Film: A Subjective Opinion
Skill ought to be present in any craft which is learned, as Leonard Nimoy has frequently opined. Whether that skill will result in a performance of competence or of excellence is one way to mark one craftsman from another. And whether the skill is so refined that excellence itself goes unnoticed is another. Spock was taken so for granted in those early days that it took some time before we realised the skill which had gone into his creation. From that skill grew a performance of such excellence that it stands alone, over forty years along in Leonard’s career.
One reason for that particular bite of excellence was Leonard’s familiarity with the character. He got to know Spock, truly know him, with the result that we did too.
Years ago I formed the admittedly subjective and personal opinion that, other than Spock, which has always stood apart for me, Leonard’s finest, purest performance on the screen was that of Morris Mayerson in “A Woman Called Golda”. It was understated, it was true and honest and it was for me deeply moving. When watching any of his roles I receive the impression that he reaches outwards for whatever inspiration serves him. For Mayerson, I think he reached in and found what was needed.
When I saw Never Forget for the first time, it happened again. I didn’t see Leonard reaching out, playing a character, hiding behind the mask he mentions so frequently. Once more it was from within and I saw that resonant note of truth. On wondering how, or wondering why, it struck me that the key was again familiarity.
Leonard’s familiarity with Spock came initially from his strong identification with the loneliness and alienness of the character. Thereafter, it also stemmed from the very unesoteric fact that he played Spock week in and week out for three years and had no option but to submerge himself in the role.
We know that this was not the case with A Woman Called Golda, or with Never Forget, long though he may have worked on the latter project. Yet I still feel that familiarity is the key and, in these two instances, the familiarity must be not with the character but with the culture, the Jewish culture. All the peripheral research and exploration on just where the character is coming from was done for him. He himself had been there. I noticed that his voice had even taken on a Jewish lilt throughout the film. So, for Mel Mermelstein, or rather for some of the essential elements of Mel Mermelstein, he once again had only to reach in. He produced a performance which made me cry.
But it would be unreasonable of me to suggest that my tears were only for the quality of Leonard’s acting. His performance as Morris Meyerson also made me cry, but it was an eminently satisfying emotion, as it always is when meeting a work of art of any kind which touches a chord within one. Moments in Star Trek have done the same, and Spock’s farewell to Leila in This Side Of Paradise gets me every time, after more than thirty years of watching it. The emotion I felt when watching and listening to Leonard as Mermelstein in the witness box, as he finally recounted the story of his vow to his father to tell the story to the world, was not satisfying or warming in any way at all. As those in the court room were treated to Mermelstein’s raw emotion in that witness box, I found myself wracked by feelings which I simply didn’t want. I didn’t want to feel that way nor to be made privy to those truths. I am not ashamed of that reaction, as I would maintain that it is common to most people. But I do not go so far as to deny the truths. It is against those who do, those who, for whatever reasons and there are many reasons, would rather contend that it didn’t happen than deal with their knowledge that it did, that Mel Mermelstein carries his fight.
This is what Never Forget was for. It was of course a true story of one man’s fight against a huge and vicious machine but, in addition, it was for me an exercise in reducing the mercifully unthinkable down to a painfully understandable reality. Leonard said in an interview that Never Forget was not a Holocaust story, and indeed it was not. A part of the reason for its impact was that we saw nothing of the Holocaust, other than Mermelstein’s exhibits. It was left to our own imagination, and no directorial skills can be more powerful than that. Never Forget’s understatement was able to bring aspects of the significance of the Holocaust directly into our heads.
Like that of guilt. What we saw in Never Forget was the colossal driving force of guilt, so strong that it was even passed on to a generation who had no ostensible cause to feel it. Not the guilt of the perpetrator, but the guilt of the survivor, which had been so horrifyingly and definitively described in William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice”. Mel Mermelstein’s guilt had taken over his life, and was the motivation behind everything he did. He lived by his perceived duty to his father and to the rest of his first family. His ‘second’ family, his own family, knew this; his wife had married him on those terms, and his oldest son, the character through whom this guilt is so graphically demonstrated, had grown up in the knowledge that he would always take second place to that other lost family. “They’re dead,” he says. “How can we compete with that?” Of course, he can’t, and that knowledge, together with the guilt he has been made to feel about being alive and healthy while the other family are not will take its place in his personality as his father’s guilt has dominated his own. The shock waves of the Holocaust, the event alleged by some never to have taken place, was seen in “Never Forget” to be reverberating down through nearly forty years.
And this was just one man and one family.
“Never Forget” was made because of the Holocaust but it was not about the Holocaust. What it illustrated was that the monster which allowed the Holocaust to happen is still here, and that it is everywhere. Leonard has again pointed out that “Never Forget” was not set in Europe in the 1940’s, but in sunny California in the 1980’s, yet the monster is still there, because it is everywhere, mostly below the surface, sometimes breaking above into the light of day. It feeds on events and conditions. In the Germany of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, a particular, specific and extreme set of political and economic conditions provided the breeding ground in which the bitterness and disappointments of a nation coagulated around the warped vision of one group of leaders to become the Third Reich. But, as I have said, “Never Forget” is about one man and his family, going about their ordinary daily affairs. Extreme conditions are not necessary here, large scale politics and economics are irrelevant. All you need is the ubiquitous monster of fear, ignorance and prejudice, which is everywhere and, it could be argued, within everyone. It was not the Nazi Stormtroopers who put the dead pig on Mel Mermelstein’s lawn. It was ordinary people.
For me, Mermelstein’s speech in the witness box was what “Never Forget” was about. I’ve heard the film criticised as uneven, because the courtroom scene was so brief and the weight of evidence brought by either side was not featured. This is true, but I don’t think that it matters. Historical evidence can be found anywhere, and “Never Forget” was not a film which set out to prove that the Holocaust took place. To me, it spoke of the experience of one individual, and how his experience affected and dominated both his family relationships and also, as a consequence, the lives and outlook of each member of the family. It was to do with the ripples on a pool, spreading outwards to infinity, outwards through the people, downwards through time. Mermelstein’s son will carry his own inherited Holocaust experience to his own family.
We know that the Holocaust was genocide; that six million people died. We are shown in this film that this means six million sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends.
Six million loved and lost people.