Part Woman in Gold and part family home movie, with shades of Everything Is Illuminated and Antiques Roadshow, the documentary Chasing Portraits is both funnier and deeper than even its compelling premise suggests.
Elizabeth Rynecki did not intend to make a film per se; but certain circumstances in her destiny conspired to make her life’s calling an undertaking that called out to be documented. When she first set out to find around 700 works of art made by her great-grandfather in Poland in the early 20th century and long thought lost to the fog of post-war Europe, she had no idea how the story would end, or that it would come to occupy some 30 years of her life. But she knew she needed to film it.
Before Moshe was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, he distributed his work among numerous friends for safekeeping. After he was killed in the Majdanek concentration camp, the art sort of disappeared. Elizabeth’s grandmother had miraculously located and collected about 120 pieces, but the fate of the rest remained a mystery — until Elizabeth came along. While not quite the same as looted art, there was a similar claim at play, the idea being that the great-grandfather had only hidden the works from Nazis, not made gifts of them to anyone, so that any individual or institution now claiming ownership actually lacked standing. But Rynecki wasn’t there to get the work back necessarily, she just wanted to find it and see it for herself — not to reconstitute a physical collection, but to generate a catalog raisonné for art history.
Personable, while also academic and emotional, the film organically weaves together the disparate but ultimately convergent threads of the Jewish experience in Poland during the war and across the Diaspora in its aftermath, inventive art historical insights, amateur sleuthing, and cinema-verite style family interviews and archives. Elizabeth’s childhood home was decorated with a great many works of art by Moshe, those rescued by her grandmother; and her grandfather had left her an unexpectedly candid and hefty memoir which covered his experience in the war, so she was not without direction as she undertook her quest. But the instances of both extreme resistance and warm support from the institutions, curators, and communities she encountered were entirely unexpected.
For one thing, the subject matter of Moshe’s work itself portrayed scenes from Jewish life in Poland in the years before WWII — it was as good as a family album, and the ways in which the film intertwines the parallel stories of her own family history with the local impact of geopolitical events is one of the more engaging aspects of the film. However any student of history will appreciate the broader human drama of untangling the question of who owns historical narratives and how those stories are reclaimed by their heirs.
Chasing Portraits plays now through Thursday, May 23 at Laemmle Music Hall.