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HBO presents
Heir to an Execution (2004)

"Everyone in the family seems ashamed of who we all are."
- Ivy Meeropol

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: September 21, 2004

Stars: Ivy Meeropol, Michael Meeropol, Robert Meeropol, Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg
Director: Ivy Meeropol

Manufacturer: Digital Video Compression Center
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:38m:55s
Release Date: September 14, 2004
UPC: 026359209529
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-BB- B

DVD Review

Aside from its historical significance, the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has been a powerful magnet for artists; some of the best work by, for instance, Tony Kushner and E.L. Doctorow was explicitly drawn from the history of this New York couple convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and executed in 1953. All these decades later, there's still a rawness in the discussion of the case by its observers: were the Rosenbergs Communist agents who got what they deserved? Was this the nadir of McCarthyism run amok, two innocents slaughtered to feed the Red-baiting monster? Even if, like most Americans, you didn't live through these years, the tension, injustice and delirium remain palpable.

Imagine how much more present that part of the past must be, then, if Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were your grandparents. This pungent documentary was made by Ivy Meeropol, daughter of Michael, the Rosenbergs' younger son; Michael and his brother Robert were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, and took the surname of their adoptive parents. Michael and Robert were little boys when their parents were executed, so of course Ivy didn't know her grandparents; this film is a conscious effort to reclaim at least part of her family’s story, and it's a powerful exploration of the resonances of this dark time all these years later.

Michael Meeropol is especially forthcoming with his daughter about his memories of his parents; these stories about the past don't have the slick quality that so often comes of memories from back in the day, because there's no dewy nostalgia when your mother and father are sent to the electric chair. The investigative legwork of the documentary comes with finding those who knew Julius and Ethel, and Meeropol's film is particularly successful in re-creating that world, intercutting archival news footage with interviews with the Rosenbergs' contemporaries, all now well on in years; you can understand the radicalism spawned by the worst of the Depression, and the hunger for another way, even if that way so clearly wasn't Soviet-style Communism. Among those interviewed are Morton Sobell, the Rosenbergs' co-defendant and a guest at their wedding (he did nineteen years rather than turn state's); and Miriam Moskowitz, whose own trial was a dry run of sorts for the Rosenbergs'. She's exactly right in describing the proceedings: "It was something that Kafka would have dreamed up."

Even more powerful, though, are the interactions between Ivy and her family. She and her cousin, now an attorney, visit the very courtroom where their grandparents were convicted; there are many villains of the piece (Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, the FBI, a slew of judges), but no doubt first among them is David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, who testified against his sister and her husband at their trial. Merely calling him a liar is a disservice to liars; he made up stories that sent his own sister to her death, and there's got to be a special circle in hell for people like him. He has understandably been the family pariah for the last fifty years; he doesn't speak with the Meeropols, but he did do an interview on 60 Minutes II, and he's as horrible as you can imagine. Ivy drives by his house, the closest she comes to any contact with him; the many surviving siblings of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg don't want to meet her or talk to her, for the case seems to shame them all these years later.

You may watch this and occasionally wonder: just what is it she's looking for? I don't think she knows herself; to humanize her grandparents, maybe, to have them be something other than historical figures written and talked about by others. And some of the most intriguing stuff, then, is watching Ivy handle her grandparents' letters, or seeing her with her father and uncle Robert visit the apartment in which the boys grew up, for a time; it's a family rent apart, and there's little that's more powerful than that.

Julius and Ethel's innocence was the non-negotiable premise of the Meeropols for years; some of that was compromised in 1995, with the release of the so-called Venona documents, from ancient archives, suggesting that, while the Rosenbergs were certainly not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted, at least Julius most probably was engaged in some sort of espionage on behalf of the USSR. The candor with which the Meeropols reassess their family history is admirable; the years may have leeched out some of the anger and the bitterness, and you sense that, though scarred, they have made some sort of peace with all this, and have found a way to move forward. But this film is much more than a mere psychological exorcism, and is sure to captivate you even if you've got only fleeting knowledge about the Rosenberg case.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Meeropol has unearthed some extraordinary archival footage—it's hard not to be moved by the two little boys, with an attorney, on their way to visit their parents for the last time, in Sing Sing—and the newly recorded stuff seems to be on high-end video, which means that it can look a little contrasty, but the transfer seems to be clean enough.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: A pretty clean track, though static is par for the course on lots of location shoots on a film like this, and you'll hear it.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
7 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ivy Meeropol
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD credits
Extras Review: Making the film seems to have been a cathartic exercise for Meeropol, so there isn't in fact a whole lot left over for her commentary track, which is more of a metanarrative—what she was thinking while shooting certain scenes, for instance. She does lay out the sense of urgency, though; already, several of those interviewed in the feature who knew Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have passed away.

Three interviews provide still more context and detail on the Rosenberg case and its legacy. Meeropol speaks with Angels in America author Tony Kushner, in a conversation (15m:47s) about not only his play, but about the function of the Rosenberg case and its lessons for the American left. She also interviews Arthur Kinoy (07m:54s), an attorney who represented the Rosenbergs on appeal; these are the rueful memories of an old man reflecting on one of the great disillusionments of his younger days. A discussion (13m:05s) with Bill Ruben, a reporter who covered the trial and befriended the Rosenberg boys, goes over some of the aspects of the trial, and it seems to be as vivid for Ruben now as it was back in the day.

Also included are five more interview segments with some of the people seen in the feature; you can see why this stuff was cut for the purposes of time, but most of this is still pretty compelling. You'll find the DVD credits under the HBO Video logo on the main menu, and also a link to the website of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A deeply felt, strongly personal, and intensely pungent documentary that humanizes Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in a manner that probably only a member of their family could. This could have been an impossibly solipsistic enterprise or a trite retelling of ancient history, but it never is; it's deeply compelling, and will have you asking questions not only about your family, but about your government.


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