Israeli Filmmaker Aiming ‘Big’ On Herzl Project

Prestigious N.Y. Public Library fellowship a large step forward for Shimon Dotan’s ambitious biopic.

05/15/2012
Staff Writer
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Imagine a biopic about Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Talk about a dream team. But the match-up is a wild dream that the accomplished Israeli director and former Hollywood filmmaker Shimon Dotan got one step closer to realizing last month. 

In April, Dotan, 62, a revered independent filmmaker in Israel and a former Hollywood action-film director in Hollywood, was awarded a prestigious New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship. He was one of 15 recipients, out of 305 who applied. In an interview at his New York University office, where he teaches film, Dotan mused — however sheepishly — about the possibility of getting Spielberg and Lewis on board.

“You know he’s Jewish, right?” Dotan said of Lewis. “I’d love for him to play Herzl, although I’m sure he doesn’t know it yet.”

The fellowship — whose past winners have used the $65,000 stipend and exclusive access to the library’s archives to work on prize-winning books, including Maya Jasanoff’s “Liberty’s Exiles” and T.J. Stiles’ “The Last Tycoon,” as well as Nathan Englander’s “Ministry of Special Cases” and Nicole Krauss’ “Great House” — was for a proposed film script about Theodor Herzl, who died in 1904.

“I hope that I’ll portray him like the real giant he was,” said Dotan. “He was not very tall, but people thought that he was — he had that kind of stature.”

The Herzl project comes with a serious intellectual pedigree. It began a few years ago when Dotan contacted Amos Elon, the prominent Israeli historian and author of a 1975 biography of Herzl.

Dotan had wanted to make a film about Herzl for decades. But he only began reading Elon’s biography a few years ago, when he was casting about for new project. Dotan called Elon, whom he had never met. But it turns out they both held each other in high esteem. 

And it turned out Elon had just seen his documentary “Hot House” (2006). A documentary about Palestinians held in Israeli security prisons, it was screened on Israeli national television and was awarded the world cinema special jury prize at Sundance in 2007. “He saw ‘Hot House’ a week before I called without me even knowing,” Dotan said.

He asked Elon if he’d be willing to help him on a script, and Elon “was happy to do it, if I can say so.” Dotan then bought the rights to the biography, and they worked together on the script until Elon’s death in 2009.

Dotan stressed the preliminary nature of that script — hence the need for the Cullman Fellowship, where he can devote a full year to working on it. As he says, “It’s still very much a work in progress, so I feel it will be absolutely premature to go into too many details.”

But he does have one scene that he’s almost certain will make the cut: Herzl’s first-hand witnessing, in 1894, of Dreyfus’ decommission from the French military. 

Dotan acknowledged the skepticism some historians have recently expressed over the impact the Dreyfus Affair had on Herzl. Even though Herzl would later talk about how the event turned him into an ardent Zionist, some historians have suggested that his shift was more gradual, and perhaps influenced even more by the political rise, a year later, of Karl Lueger, an anti-Semitic, populist Austrian politician.

But according to Herzl’s own telling, witnessing Dreyfus’ defrocking convinced him of the need for a Jewish state. Up until that point, Herzl, then 34, had been a proudly secular Austrian. His father was a successful, assimilated businessman. Theodor received his law degree from the University of Vienna, and was working as a journalist for Austria’s leading liberal newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, when he was one of a few journalists allowed to witness Dreyfus’ decommissioning ceremony in Paris.

“Herzl was assigned to cover Dreyfus’ defrocking in the military courtyard,” Dotan explained, “and the myth goes that he saw people starting to yell ‘Death to the traitor,’ which soon became ‘Death to the Jew,’ which then became ‘Death to the Jews!’”

That moment, Herzl would later recall, convinced him that Jews had no place in Europe. Assimilation was an illusion, and anti-Semitism was impervious to the egalitarian ideals of the enlightenment. “If France could do that — the most enlightened country in Europe — then any country could,” Dotan said, summarizing Herzl’s change of heart. 

A year later, in 1895, Herzl would write the intellectual treatise that founded Zionism, “The Jewish State.” Shortly after, he began drumming up support for the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. And his last years were spent almost exclusively championing Zionism. He died in 1904, however, while the cause was still on the margins, nearly half a century before Israel was established.

Dotan hopes to portray Herzl in a way that is true to the historical record. Yet he also wants to give him the Shakespearean proportions that Elon captured in his biography. In Dotan’s fellowship application, he included one such passage by Elon: “Herzl epitomized nearly all the ideal and dubious qualities often attributed to the modern Jew: imagination, showmanship, vanity, irritability, relentless drive, utopian yearning for the just society, alienation, snobbery, pride in Judaism, and Jewish self-hatred.”

That complexity does not quite represent the Herzl Dotan knew growing up. Today he remains enamored of the man, but when he was a child, Dotan says, his vision of Herzl was mythic. His own parents emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1959, when he was 9. They had survived the Holocaust, having been held by the fascist Romanian government and not sent to a Nazi-run concentration camp. 

His parents came to Israel mostly for economic opportunity, Dotan said. But they settled on a moshav — a kibbutz-like settlement — where the Zionist ideology ran deep. “I believed in the land, and I still believe in the land, and that a person who works the land, owns the land,” Dotan said, referring to moshav’s version of Zionism. “There were some beautiful ideas of the moshav that I still feel are worth living for.”

But Dotan’s service in the Israeli military, in an elite navy unit, began to change his views. He served in the Gaza Strip, in 1969, not long after the Israeli military had captured it in the Six-Day War. 

“It became very clear to me then that I didn’t want to be there, and that my country shouldn’t be there either,” he said. He still believes in a Jewish state — “absolutely, absolutely,” he says — “but I think you should separate the idea of the Jewish state from what the governments over the years are doing.”

Dotan studied film at Tel Aviv University after his service in the military. And he quickly became a star of the country’s nascent film scene, twice winning the country’s Oscar-equivalent for best film in the 1980s.

The first time was for “Repeat Dive,” from 1982, which focused on the emotional turmoil of an Israeli soldier trying to integrate back into civilian life — it was loosely based off his own life. The second was for “The Smile of the Lamb,” from 1986. Adapted from a David Grossman novel, it followed an Israeli soldier serving in the West Bank who befriends a sagacious Palestinian villager.

Both films were presented at prestigious international festivals, and they won Dotan many admirers at home and abroad. But in the late ’80s, Dotan faced increasing attacks from conservative critics, and one attack, he says, still stings: Dotan, one critic wrote, was a naïve “coffee-house leftist.”

But it was less because of the criticism than the shear pull of big-time filmmaking that he left for Hollywood. With a family of three to support, he began making big-budget action films, including “The Finest Hour,” from 1991, starring Rob Lowe. The film was about the American experience in the first Gulf War, but Dotan relied heavily on his own military experience, even convincing the studio producers to shoot much of it in Israel.

Yet he continues to see himself as an Israeli first. “I did not leave Israel, and I don’t think you will find any Israeli who’ll say they left Israel,” he said. “I’ll always be an Israeli who is just living outside of the country.”

He has lived in New York since 1994, where most of his time is spent teaching film at NYU and at The New School. Yet some of his closest friendships are with Israelis living in New York, like Zev Chafets. A prominent print journalist himself, Chafets said that whatever one makes of Dotan’s politics, you can trust he’s done his homework.

“He has a great deal of intellectual honesty, and he’s incredibly persistent,” Chafets said, adding: “Before I would make any political judgment about Shimon, I would have to say that he’s a patriot, and he’s paid his dues.”

Dotan, like all the Cullman Fellows, is under no obligation to complete the project he’s set out to work on. And he knows that even if he finishes the script while a Cullman fellow, he’ll still have ahead of him the equally daunting task of raising money to film it. But he does have high ambitions, ones befitting his subject.

“I want it to be as big a film as it can get,” he said. “It’s not a closet project that I want to do for myself. … Zionism is one of the most beloved and vilified ideologies in our time. And in a way, Herzl embodies all its contradictions.” 

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