It's not exactly the most well-known documentary about the Holocaust, but Josh Waletzky's Partisans of Vilna (1986) is one of the most interestingly told. Rather than focusing on typical accounts of Jewish suffering in Nazi concentration camps, we're given a rare look at the Lithuanian Jews who bravely fought and defended their homeland. The majority of this resistance took place in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilna---also known as Vilnius---and often involved risky sabotage missions to deter the invading Nazi forces. It's not just a series of personal reflections from one of the 20th century's darkest periods, as this film also serves as a true testament to human courage and survival. Additionally, Partisans of Vilna was an incredibly difficult documentary to organize and film.
At the time of the film's production in the early 1980s, the now-defunct Soviet Union was still an empire and Lithuania was part of it. Denied access to film in the country, the crew was forced to incorporate a few surprise tactics to get their much-needed material. A pair of survivors living in Lithuania were contacted, and the two people were able to get a small amount of footage at Vilna and the surrounding forest (remaining portions were shot in Israel, the United States, and Canada).
Funding for the documentary began pouring in soon after its inception; though the bulk of financing was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, several other third parties and foundations stepped up to ensure that Partisans of Vilna would be completed and released (among these individuals were Ed Asner, Joan Rivers, Barbra Streisand, and director Martin Brest).
Even so, Partisans of Vilna isn't about the cast and crew or the producers...it's about the survivors. More than 40 of them are interviewed here, with each one speaking candidly about their role in the resistance. In many cases, vintage photographs are often used to introduce many of the surviving contributors (as seen below); though it's an extremely simple technique and hardly a new concept, it really helps emphasize how much the survivors' lives have changed since the Holocaust. For obvious reasons, their invaluable participation is easily the heart of the film.
For the bulk of the remaining time, Waletzky employs a wealth of archival footage---including detailed maps of the surrounding area, as well as the survivors' own memorabilia---to great effect, creating a incredibly layered portrait of WWII-era Lithuania. It's quite an accomplishment, considering he wasn't even allowed entry 40 years later. Though films like Schindler's List (and the countless documentaries produced by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation) share similar themes of human courage and survival, Partisans of Vilna is one of the first efforts to really explore some of the lesser-known stories that took place during the Holocaust. It's extremely focused, detailed and reverent towards the survivors and their cause, deliberately paced but extremely easy to get lost in.
Partisans of Vilna will soon celebrate is 20th anniversary, and Docurama has done a terrific job in commemorating such an event. This 2-disc release presents the documentary with a solid, no-frills technical presentation---especially considering the level of difficulty present during the film's production---and has smartly combined the excellent main feature with a handful of appropriate supplements. Director Joseph Waletzky is one of the key contributors during the bonus features, though producer Aviva Kempner is perhaps an even greater presence. In any case, this well-rounded release is one of most pleasantly surprising DVD efforts this year---in any genre---and easily worth hunting down for any self-respecting documentary fan or ardent history buff.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Though the visual presentation is hardly anything to write home about, the 1.33:1 fullscreen (original aspect ratio) transfer for Partisans of Vilna is still quite watchable. There's obviously a few unavoidable problems: dated footage really shows its age, and even the newer interviews are fairly grainy. On the plus side, colors are generally accurate and there's very little in the way of dirt and digital imperfections. With Docurama's excellent track record so far, it would be unfair to punish a film that was never a visual knockout in the first place; in all honesty, it looks as good as possible under the circumstances. The audio is also somewhat limited, though it still offers clear dialogue and crisp music. There's several occasions where the vocals and background noises come through a bit thin and tinny, but this appears to be another source material issue.
Menu Design, Packaging & Presentation:
Presented in the typical Docurama style, the menu designs (above) aren't terribly exciting but they are easy to navigate. This 130-minute film has been divided into a modest 12 chapters, with no layer change detected during playback. Like the film itself, all related bonus materials are presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio. This two-disc release is housed in a slim double keepcase, and there's even some great printed material to look at inside---more on that in the next section. No captions have been provided, but there's burnt-in English subtitles when needed.
There obviously weren't many bonus features to pick and choose from, but Docurama has ensured that fans of the film won't go away empty-handed. First up are two feature-length Audio Commentaries; one with director Josh Waletzky, and the other with producer Aviva Kempner (both are also the credited co-writers). Each participant is well-organized and candid---though I found Kempner's delivery a bit more interesting---but it would have been especially interesting to hear a group session. In any case, the commentaries provide a much-needed additional layer of modern reflection to an already terrific documentary. There's also an excellent Photo Gallery on display (seen below), containing a wealth of historical photographs paired with helpful captions.
Next up is a text-based Producer's Statement (presumably written by Kempner), offering a few remarks about the film's inception and production. There's also a pair of text-based Biographies for both commentary participants, as well as the standard catalog of Docurama Trailers. There's also another surprise to this release, as the second disc is a full-length Soundtrack CD (12 tracks, 33 minutes) featuring traditional songs of Jewish resistance. The previously mentioned printed material is yet another bonus: included is a 32-page Study Guide with complete historical background, as well as a Songbook to accompany the soundtrack CD. Overall, it's a very well-rounded package.
From top to bottom: an excellent film, and an excellent DVD package. It's not often that important documentaries are given the proper attention in every department, but Docurama has really covered all the bases with the 20th Anniversary release of Partisans of Vilna. Though the technical presentation may be the weakest portion of this 2-disc set, everything looks and sounds quite good. The bonus features are perhaps the biggest highlights here, especially the bonus soundtrack CD and the excellent printed material. It's no secret that documentary DVDs are getting better with each passing year, and Partisans of Vilna easily stands as one of 2005's best. Highly Recommended.
Related Link: Official Docurama Website
Randy Miller III is an art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.