Review: Vishniac


Imagine the breadth of a life that began before the end of the 19th century and lasted almost until the 21st. Further, imagine that life beginning in Czarist Russia, passing through Wiemar and then Nazi Germany, and ending in 1990 New York City. That was the life of renowned photographer Roman Vishniac.

Raised in a wealthy Jewish family, Roman was expected to follow in his father’s successful commercial enterprises. However, his talents and interests lay elsewhere. From an early age, he was fascinated by biology and photography, and these two loves dominated his life.

With the coming of the Bolsheviks, and the condemnation of the “Bourgeoisie,” Roman’s family moved to Berlin. The Wiemar Republic was a liberating change from the anti-Jewish, conservative society of Russia. Roman’s father kept pushing him into commercial pursuits, at which he failed, time after time. There was one pursuit at which he excelled, however – photography. He soon married and had two children.

A major turning point in his career came in 1935 when he was commissioned to take photographs of the impoverished rural Jewish communities in eastern Europe, something he spent much time on, and the results of which have brought him international acclaim even now, 34 years after his death.

Director Laura Bialis (“Rock in the Red Zone”), writer Sophie Sartain (“Seeing Allred”), and especially Mara Vishniac Kohn, the elderly daughter of Roman Vishniac, have given us a detailed portrait of this complex man whose devotion to his craft brought him great acclaim, but at the expense of his family. They have shown us Vishniac’s brilliance, but also his shortcomings.

Through a combination of interviews with Ephriam and Ethan Vishniac (the surviving sons of Roman’s other child, Wolff), Mara, and others who worked with Roman, stills and films Roman shot, and live-action recreations, we are given the high points of this fascinating man’s life and work – especially the incredibly personal photographs of a time just before the Nazi scourge wiped out so much of Jewish traditional life in eastern Europe.

I highly recommend this biography of a remarkable man and his even more remarkable photographic work. You will find few other biographical documentaries so lovingly created, from the cinematography of the recreations to the editing to the music.


Director: Laura Bialis
Writer: Sophie Sartain
Producers: Laura Bialis, Roberta Grossman
Cinematographer: Harris Done, Simon Weekes
Editor: Chris Callister
Music: Todd Boekelheide
Runtime: One hour, thirty-five minutes
Availability: Selected Theaters and Festivals throughout 2024

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