'Chasing Portraits': Film Review

Sławomir Grünberg
Doesn't live up to the dramatic potential of its subject matter.
4/26/2019

Elizabeth Rynecki's documentary concerns her efforts to track down artworks painted by her great-grandfather, who was murdered in the Holocaust.

The opening minutes of Elizabeth Rynecki's documentary Chasing Portraits features a conversation between two of the film's principal figures while each is driving separately. The sound quality is awful, the background noise nearly drowning out the conversation. It's a telling example of the amateurishness that mars the otherwise interesting and worthwhile film about Rynecki's quest to track down the artworks painted by her great-grandfather, who died in the Holocaust. Too often coming across as an elaborate home movie, the doc would have benefited from its story being told by a more experienced filmmaker who was less emotionally involved in the proceedings.

Morris Rynecki (1881-1943) was an artist responsible for some 800 paintings, many of them depicting the thriving Jewish community in his native Poland before World War II. As we see in home movies shown in the doc, Elizabeth grew up surrounded by many examples of her great-grandfather's work, both hung on the walls and stored in closets. As an adult, she established a website to showcase the paintings, but felt frustrated by how few of them were available. Only around 120 of them were known to have been rescued after the war, and they were scattered around the globe. As a result of her website, she discovered that more of them still existed. Many of them are displayed in the film, and they emerge as superb renderings of a lost way of life.

There's a generational aspect to the story. Elizabeth's grandfather, with whom she was very close, had written a memoir about his experiences of the Holocaust that she only discovered after his death. His desire to make his story known is contrasted with Elizabeth's father, who is deeply uncomfortable discussing painful memories of his past and doesn't wish to participate in his daughter's efforts to excavate it.

The documentary mainly focuses on Elizabeth's efforts to track down her great-grandfather's surviving paintings. She meets a Toronto private collector who owns four of them, and travels to Warsaw to visit the Jewish Historical Institute, which owns 52, and the National Museum, which has even more. Both institutions have little documentation about how they came to own the paintings, the vast majority of which aren't even on display. She attends a large art market in the city in the remote hope that she'll come across one of the paintings for sale. She doesn't find any, but disturbingly comes across small figures depicting Orthodox Jews in unflattering, cartoonish fashion. She also makes a pilgrimage to Majdanek, the concentration camp where her great-grandfather died.

Her travels next take her to Israel, where she meets a collector who gives her with one of the paintings in his collection, an act of generosity that leaves her emotionally overwhelmed. But she doesn't always find such cooperation. Another Israeli owner of several of the paintings refuses to meet with her despite Elizabeth's assurances that she only wants to see them and has no intention of claiming their return.

Such scenes as when a museum curator declares that his institution is the best home for the paintings, even if they're fated to be mostly kept in storage, provide interesting food for thought. But this and other important topics are frequently lost amidst the self-indulgence on display, the filmmaker more intent on exploring family issues or her own feelings than the issues she's raising.  

Distributor: First Run Feature
Director-screenwriter-producer: Elizabeth Rynecki
Director of photography: Slawomir Grunberg
Editor: Tina Nguyen
Composer: Matthias Zimmerman

78 minutes