Never Forget is an excellent 1991 TV-movie produced by TNT and based on the true story of Mel Mermelstein (Leonard Nimoy), a survivor of Auschwitz, who takes on a moneyed group of Holocaust deniers with cop-turned-lawyer William John Cox (Dabney Coleman). The 94-minute film accurately traces Mermelstein's case (quoting court transcripts), documenting his personal crusade and the impact it has on his immediate family. It also raises larger issues of challenging hate groups making outrageous lies. Directed by Joseph Sargent, the show features what is perhaps Nimoy's best filmed performance.
A Warner Archive manufactured-on-demand release, Never Forget is presented here in an okay transfer with a one-minute video promo (billed as a trailer) tossed in as an extra feature.
On May 19, 1944, Mermelstein's entire family, then living in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia (though occupied at the time by Hungary) was rounded up by the Nazis, thrown into a boxcar and shipped off to Auschwitz. Most of the women and young girls were murdered the next day, and by the time the concentration camp was liberated, Mel Mermelstein, then 18 years ago, was the sole survivor of his family.
By 1980, Mermelstein had relocated to Southern California, married Jane (Blythe Danner) a Southern Baptist from Tennessee, was raising a family, and running a successful business. At his company Mermelstein built an ever-expanding museum-exhibit that welcomed school field trips and other civics groups interested in learning about the Holocaust and from Mermelstein's own personal account of his unspeakably horrific experience.
Mermelstein's actions attract the attention of the so-called Institute for Historical Review, Holocaust deniers, who offer him $50,000 to prove the Holocaust isn't a hoax, albeit in their own kangaroo court. They threaten to ridicule him publicly if he refuses their offer. Mermelstein is inclined to take on the case, despite friends, lawyers, and even the Simon Wiesenthal Center arguing against taking any action at all. They argue, not without justification, that for Mermelstein to challenge them would only bring free international publicity to this and other hate organizations, and damage the fight against anti-Semitism after surely losing against the stacked deck they propose.
But ignoring the IHR is simply not an option for Mermelstein; to do so would be the same as Europe ignoring Hitler's pre-war rhetoric. Eventually he finds an attorney, William John Cox (Coleman), who thinks he's found a way to beat the haters at their own game. Betting that if Mermelstein agrees to their challenge they'll simply ignore his notarized reply, this, Cox argues, will pave the way for Cox to sue the IHR for breach of contract, anticipatory repudiation, libel, and injurious denial of established fact in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. This, the two men hope, would in turn legally establish the Holocaust as a common knowledge not reasonably subject to dispute.
Never Forget is excellent on several levels. Ronald Rubin's screenplay allows time for Mermelstein to talk to both schoolchildren and his own children about his personal experiences in ways that never come off as a preachy, dry history lesson. Through Nimoy's performance, Mermelstein comes across as a gentle man ready to answer any and all questions about his experiences to anyone willing to listen to him. He's not a pushy crusader, nor does he judge those Holocaust survivors who want to put the past behind them. When, in the opening scene, a high school boy suggests the Holocaust never happened, Mermelstein's reply is calm and reasonable.
The film intelligently questions whether Mermelstein's actions might merely provide baiting hate groups like the IHR with a larger platform to promote their outrageous lies. In this sense Never Forget anticipates a problem much bigger in 2014 than in 1980, when organizations like the IHR existed only on the fringes of society. Today there seems no end of pundits and politicians gleefully spreading obvious, easily disprovable lies, often racist in origin, that among the willfully ignorant are accepted at indisputable fact. One wonders what the now 87-year-old Mermelstein makes of current events these days.
While Blythe Danner and Dabney Coleman are both fine in their supporting parts, it's Nimoy's outstanding performance that really makes Never Forget work as well as it does. He seems to have been a deeply conflicted actor for most of his career, fighting the typecasting caused by what was also his greatest professional success, as Mr. Spock in the various Star Trek TV shows and movies. My own theory is that for a long time he overcompensated in response to the chiding he received from non-fans. He became alternately humorless, taking on various other roles and new Star Trek projects with the gravitas of a Buddhist monk, while at other times, trying to appear that he doesn't take anything too seriously, forces awkward smiles and guffaws. Mixing religious iconography, his Mr. Spock had to have been a large cross to bear.
Ironically, all this personal/professional history works to Nimoy's advantage as Mermelstein in Never Forget. Here he's playing a haunted man compelled to share his horrible experiences, but in a carefully measured way that teaches without overwhelming. Even his own wife and children can't completely relate to his personal history, yet it's the engine driving his entire postwar existence. As Mermelstein, Nimoy exhibits intimate, authentic emotions his Spock character wouldn't allow, and which Nimoy himself choose not to show in nearly all his other major film and television roles. It's a completely successful immersion into a part he was born to play.
Video & Audio
Never Forget seems to utilize an older but acceptable 4:3 video transfer that's also region-free. The Dolby Digital stereo (English only, no subtitles) is fairly good though hardly aggressive. The only Extra Feature is a one-minute promo apparently designed for use when the show was syndicated after its premiere on TNT.
A strong, educational television film, Never Forget is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.