This account of the pre-Nazi glory and subsequent harrowing fate of the Austrian Jewish sports club Hakoah makes for a necessary corrective to Leni Riefenstahl’s grudgingly admired Olympic myth-mongering. Director Yaron Zilberman coaxes forth his octogenarian subjects’ memories of youthful hope and athletic prowess. The erstwhile athletes, who all escaped probable death when coaches arranged for illegal passage to safety in Israel, London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, vividly recall the power of the club to instill a sense of belonging, even as Austria lurched toward German annexation.
Though Zilberman’s affection for the women leads to some indulgent digression, the doc’s low-key tone (and lack of the stock, timpani-backed Nazi iconography) throws certain anecdotes into powerful relief. For example, the sister of 85-year-old Judith Haspel relates her sibling’s refusal to swim for Germany in the 1936 Olympics (in pools designated off-limits to “dogs and Jews”). Upon her decision, the Austrian government, until a 1995 reinstatement, erased her competitive records from the books. At the swimmers’ film-spurred Vienna reunion, a chatty cabbie apologetically admits to Austria’s ill treatment of “non-natives” in the past, prompting Hakoah clubber turned Rutgers professor Greta Stanton to explain that she had never considered herself a non-native. The driver awkwardly attempts to amend himself—”not German.” Zilberman records Stanton’s shocked silence, a delicate acknowledgment of a lingering menace that chafes at any historical confinement.