It's my love letter to Hank [Greenberg] and to Detroit," Aviva Kempner says of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a documentary about "his life and achievements [in baseball] more than a history of Judaism or anything else. Hank Greenberg was underknown then [in the 60s], and I wanted to make sure everyone knew about him."
The filmmaker remembers her father taking her to see the baseball games in Detroit in the 60s. Hank Greenberg, retired in 1947, was still very much on her father's mind.
After directing her award-winning film on Jewish resistance in WWII Partisans of Vilna in the 80s, she knew Greenberg would be her next project.
She spent 12 years collecting archival footage and interviews from family, friends, and former teammates. Kempner says that everyone was glad to discuss Hank Greenberg and that everyone remembered him fondly. Only Joe DiMaggio said no, for reasons unknown.
"It's a hero story, more than a sports film or a history," she says.
Kempner credits this for its popularity, and why The Life and Times is one of the biggest grossing documentaries of the year.
"People love real stories of real people," says Kempner."I think non-fiction is better than fiction sometimes. It can be more popular. Like that Survivor show," she adds, chuckling.
Kempner credits this accessibility for its wide appeal and box office success. "I never dreamed it would be this popular," she admits happily.
She says with forthright frankness, "The best things I've heard critics say about it is that you don't have to be a Jew or a sports fan to enjoy it."
"When NBC was wondering whether to put on the debate or the baseball playoffs, that's when I knew why Hank was so popular," she says. "Baseball's always the been the American sport, more so than any other. That's why most immigrants loved baseball in the early 1900s, to become American."
Hank Greenberg was one of these. However, when the 6'4" player joined the major leagues, he did not change his name like the few Jews who came before him had. Greenberg nearly beat Babe Ruth's home run record more than 60 years before Mark McGwire did, won plenty of pennants and two World Series.
More importantly, Greenberg served as a beacon for Jews at a time when anti-semitism was rampant. "He didn't change his name. He observed Yom Kippur and didn't play that day, and people respected him for that, when before, no one would have. Once Greenberg was established as a baseball star, Kempner says, and he still identified himself with his religion, people began to change their minds.
He once entered a synagogue during a service and was applauded.
His sense of being a Jewish icon in America caused Greenberg to be the first major baseball star to enlist in WWII. Interestingly, and a subject from which Kempner does not shy away from, is Greenberg's atheism following his service in WWII.
"I think that was very typical of a lot of guys coming back, and second generation Jews as well. They rebelled against the orthodoxy of their parents. I thought it was fair and ironic at the same time, that the Jewish symbol was not a religious man.
"Jewishness is as much about race and identity as it is about religion." But for Kempner, that makes Greenberg even more of a hero.
"He stood up whenever Jews were being spoken against or unfairly treated. He understood his symbolism and how important he was to Jews. But he just did it in a different way that wasn't necessarily religious. That was pretty amazing."
Kempner's main point in making the film is to eradicate negative stereotypes of Jews in film. By bringing this story a 6'4" bona fide baseball star, "not some nebbish middle-aged business man, or shrewish mother," Kempner hopes to lessen what she sees as those common stereotypes. Hence her first film, about Jewish war resistance.
"It's an internal thing in the end," she states. "Some Jewish artists bring out the stereotype, some try to show the positive."
To the end of eradicating these stereotypes, Kempner started the Ciesla Foundation, which is committed to making documentaries which counter these negative portrayals by showing non-stereotypical images of Jews. Kempner serves as the director of the Educational Foundation.
She remains mum about her next project. "After working twelve years on one film, I've learned never to put all my bagels in one basket."
Greenberg is an informative biography and surprisingly dramatic (part of a resurgence of documentaries as it makes its way around the indie circuit along with popular fare like The Eyes of Tammy Faye).
The film focuses initially on the anti-semitism of the 30s that Greenberg had to face when he entered the major leagues, illuminating the entire era while never straying from Greenberg himself. It's a clever feat, and well-appreciated. Kempner magnificently balances both the life and the times of Greenberg.
The baseball legend's life seems well-suited to a full-length feature movie (and you can probably expect one in the next decade) as he faced prejudice, became a willing symbol/beacon for the Jewish people, went to a couple of World Series, became the first major baseball star to enlist in WWII, and returned to baseball.
Kempner may be lucky in that few people remember all of Greenberg's (many) achievements; it's edge-of-the seat material as you wonder whether Greenberg wins the World Series, what his injuries cost him, how he'll do after coming back from the war. But the film never becomes a melodrama- instead presented naturally, the story is inherently gripping.
Kempner uses archival film footage and news reels to wonderful effect; there's a strong sense of time and place (although the jazz music occasionally doesn't always seem in sync with the baseball action).
The biggest success of the film is that it captures the excitement that baseball and Greenberg once held and transfers them to the audience. There was a time when baseball really was the American sport to end all sports, and Greenberg effortlessly presents how important baseball was to everybody in the first half of the century.
Greenberg was not only a baseball star but a hero as well. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg never falls prey to needless drama, overemotional poignancy or too much information.
Take yourself out to the ball game.
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