Kirk Douglas. The son of Jewish immigrants from Belarus, Douglas spent much of his life and early parts of his career fighting anti-Semitism, an interesting part of his autobiography The Ragman's Son. With his Jewish heritage, I can only imagine that 1953's The Juggler was an emotional venture for the actor.
It's 1949 and among hundreds of other Jewish refugees, Hans Mueller (Douglas) disembarks from a ship in Haifa in Israel at a refugee camp. A survivor of a WWII concentration camp, Hans was an international star before the war, gaining fame as a performer and juggler, but he was the lone survivor from his family; his wife and kids both dying in the camps. Now, Hans is struggling to adjust to a post-war life. He leaves the refugee camp, but when he is stopped by a police officer, Hans freaks out, runs and when cornered beats the officer senseless. Hans is now on the run, trekking across the Israeli countryside.
The Holocaust is one of those historical tragedies that is hard to fathom actually happened. Six million Jews killed in around six years? Millions more of Russians, minorities and various ethnicities and cultures? It boggles the mind. Many films have handled the touchy, emotional subject matter extremely well, but I can't think of another one that deals with how the survivors of the concentration camps assimilated themselves back to a "normal" life following their horrific ordeal. More impressive, 'Juggler' was made just four years after the story is set, and eight years since the end of WWII. That subject matter is still very much a fresh wound, and if for absolutely nothing else, this film gets bonus points for trying to tell a timely, emotional story.
Basically regardless of the role or the movie, if I see the name 'Kirk Douglas' in the cast listing, I'll give the film a shot. This is not a role that is mentioned with his best, but it is a hidden gem. He does an admirable job bringing Hans to life. As Hans treks across Israel, we learn more about his concentration camp past. Upon first meeting him, he mistakes another refugee family for his wife and kids. He's convinced it's them. But as we see more of his deep-seeded issues, it's easy to see that everything is not all right. Hans is claustrophobic, fears any sort of uniformed authority and is almost schizophrenic in his personal interactions. Douglas always had the ability to turn into an emotional livewire on-screen, and that's no different than here. A very effective performance, both understated and exaggerated at the same time, but just the right amount of both.
What struck me years back when I first stumbled across this movie was the photography. Made in 1953 before widescreen filming techniques were used, 'Juggler' nonetheless takes advantage of filling the fullscreen. Director Edward Dmytryk shoots the entire film in black and white on location in Israel, a choice that brings the entire movie up a notch. The California hills, the southwest desert, none of it would have sufficed here. As Hans walks across Israel, we get a sense of distance traveled, seeing Haifa, Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Hill of Galilee as a backdrop. The camera moves close in behind Douglas' Hans, but in the background we see the expansive countryside going on for seemingly endless miles. Not only is the movie timely, but because it was filmed in Israel, it feels that much more authentic.
As far as star power goes, the movie hitches its wagons to Douglas' name recognition. The rest of the cast isn't going to have much recognition at all with most viewers. Milly Vitale plays Ya'El, a Jewish woman working with refugees to relocate within Israel who begins to worry about Hans' mental mindset. Paul Stewart plays Detective Karni, the officer pursuing Hans after his attack on the police officer. Joseph Walsh plays Joshua, a Jewish teenager who joins Hans in his "travels" of sorts, the two bonding over similar backgrounds. Also look for future Sgt. Schultz John Banner as a witness to the attack who takes part in the investigation and Beverly Washburn as Susy, a young girl who becomes Hans' friend when they meet upon arriving at the camp.
This one was a pleasant surprise. At times, it borders on being a little overdone -- looking at you, George Antheil's musical score especially -- but mostly it hits all the right notes. Douglas is the biggest reason to see this ahead of its time story. Well worth seeking it out.
The Juggler <---trailer p="p">---trailer>