I feel foolish admitting that I was unfamiliar with Roman Vishniac and the incredibly evocative photos he shot in Weimar Germany and its surrounding countries before they fell victim to Hitler and the Nazi party. Little did he dream that he was capturing the faces and attitudes of people who would vanish from the earth a short time later—a “lost generation.” His daughter could recall standing in his darkroom watching these images come to life, and she is the primary link to the protagonist of Laura Bialis’s compelling new documentary Vishniac.

The pictures alone would warrant a feature-length film—and fill several published volumes—but Vishniac lived into his 90s and thrived in a second career here in the U.S. as a scientist who popularized microphotography. His work appeared in Life magazine and a series of documentaries, and he became something of a celebrity.

We learn all this through archival footage and the intimate memories shared by his children and grandson, who suffered from neglect and emotional distance. We see for ourselves how someone as self-absorbed as Vishniac lived out his life in his adopted country.

Bialis completes her portrait using a technique I usually despise: dramatic recreations. In this case, the artfully staged scenes of Vishniac (played by an actor who bears some resemblance to the real man) photographing children at play in Poland and a farmer in his field in Latvia help to provide a tangible context to the story being told.

This is a perfect marriage of subject and storyteller. Thank goodness Laura Bialis was able to interview Vishniac’s daughter Mara, who passed away in 2018, and accumulate all the background materials that make this film so vividly true. It opened Friday, January 19th in New York at the Quad Cinema and on February 2 in Los Angeles at two Laemmle Theaters. The filmmaker and her colleagues will be conducting q&a sessions in both cities. For more information click HERE.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024