Saturday, February 23, 2019

Photography, spying and the joy of Communism in Peter Stephan Jungk's documentary, TRACKING EDITH

A documentary in which the content and tale told are much more interesting that the actual execution of the material itself, TRACKING EDITH is the story of Edith Tudor-Hart (née Edith Suschitzky), born in Vienna in 1908, who emigrated to London, acted as a spy for Russia's KGB, and was simultaneously an even better -- first-rate, really -- photographer who beautifully captured many of the social issues of her time, from England's industrial decline and the plight of refugees of the Spanish Civil war to Britain's housing policy and the needs of its children.

Edith was also the great aunt of the filmmaker here, Peter Stephan Jungk (shown left), who is to be commended for bringing to our attention this very interesting woman and her work, even if the result, as a movie, is somewhat mediocre. If nothing else, Edith's photography that we see here should make many viewers ready to line up at any exhibition of her work that might find its way to their locale. It's that good.

Her spying was something else. As a Jew who had to leave Austria due to the Nazis rise to power, she -- as did so many others of the day -- embraced Communism as, at very least, an antidote to the fascism that was growing ever stronger during this time. While many eventually understood Russia's Stalin to be as crazy and murderous as was Adolf Hitler, Edith evidently clung to her belief that Communism would make the world a much better place.

The lovely Edith (shown in self-portrait on poster, top) is said to have recruited for the KGB a number of very important spies -- often from the cream of the Britain's crop. She was responsible for the recruitment of both Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, two of the infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) Cambridge Spy Ring, that, in Russia, was known as the Magnificent Five.

Filmmaker Jungk uses everything from archival photos and interviews with family members, historians, photo historian (above, right) even an ex-KGB member (below) to somehow give us a fuller portrait of our photographer/spy. Individually, the interviews make some sense, yet our Edith never really coalesces as she might, and the constant jumping from one subject and/or person to another becomes annoying over time.

Further, the use of animation (below) that tries to goose up the proceedings to would-be thriller status seems almost silly and certainly pointless. This may stand in for the often "acted-out" segments of certain documentaries, or perhaps take the place of archival footage that might have been difficult to obtain (though I rather doubt this: Britain's Blitz by the Nazi's was undocumented?), but as seen here,  the animation seems both unnecessary and rather clunky.

The family members interviewed, including brother Wolf Suschitzky (below, center) and nephew Peter Suschitzky (below, left, who became a noted cinematographer and credits Edith for steering him away from science and toward art), provide the most interesting dialog and may make you want to learn even more about this unusual woman who gave birth to a lovely son who, in his younger years, turned schizophrenic and never recovered.

Finally, it's Edith photography (above and below), seen heavily over the end credits, that seems most special. This woman clearly had a gift -- and used it. I hope I'll get to see an exhibition of her work before I depart this world.

From First Run Features and running 92 minutes, Tracking Edith arrives on DVD this coming Tuesday, February 26 -- for purchase and/or rental.

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