It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl offers at least one way to couch propaganda in a way that doesn’t seem like the genuine article on the face of it. Crafted in the manner of a standard informational documentary, Richard Trank’s film is conventional to the point of dullness, filching from the Ken Burns playbook right down to its slowly drifting still photographs and Lee Holdrige’s solemnly noble orchestral music score. (The style has become such a cliché that Apple’s basic iMovie video-editing program literally has “Ken Burns effect” as an option.) Furthermore, Trank doesn’t have a polemical bone in its body, preferring to let facts speak for themselves, or, at the very least, offer up the appearance of doing so.
The facts in It Is No Dream all center around the titular figure, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian writer/journalist who, upon seeing anti-Semitic feeling running rampant in both France—especially during the notorious Dreyfus affair, named after a French Jewish army captain falsely convicted as a spy—and Vienna, concluded that there was no use in trying to assimilate into society, and that the best path would be to flee it altogether. Thus, with the publication of his tract Der Judenstaat in 1896, the Zionist movement was born. (The film’s title is taken from a quote from Herzl’s book.)
Trank’s film fastidiously details Herzl’s life, from his relatively humble beginnings as an aspiring playwright with barely an interest in “the Jewish question” to more or less the voice speaking in favor of the reestablishment of a wholly Jewish state. On the soundtrack, Trank heavily features selections from Herzl’s writings and transcripts, all recited by Christoph Waltz (“penance” on Waltz’s part for playing the sadistic Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds?). All of this displays impressively exhaustive research, and Trank has pieced it all together skillfully and methodically. The doc is more or less successful on its own terms, and anyone coming upon it without any prior knowledge of Herzl and his legacy—and had, say, decided not to simply consult the Wikipedia entry for him—would find this duly informative.
Nevertheless, even on the terms it sets out for itself, it’s worth pointing out how Trank barely seems to give any attention to the current Israeli-Palestine conflict, simplifying all of the complex, anguished history of Zionism since Herzl’s death in 1904 into one brief opening section arguing that “the Jewish question still exists.” Also, those surging strings in Holdridge’s score are unsubtle cues as to how we should all feel about Herzl’s legacy (pretty darn inspired by his achievements, undoubtedly). It Is No Dream has a lot of information, but its pose of academic detachment proves to be just a subtler way of selling its pro-Israel agenda.