Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox



Balcony Releasing

NEW YORK -- Sara Lamm's documentary tells the tale of a highly successful, multigenerational family business, but "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" is not exactly "Dallas" or "Dynasty." The story behind the hugely successful natural soaps that have been a fixture for decades, especially among the countercultural, offers enough bizarreness to earn it genuine cult status. It is playing an exclusive engagement at New York's Cinema Village before rolling out nationally.

The title figure is the German-born Emanuel H. Bronner, who left Germany in 1929, years before his Jewish family's highly successful soap factory was seized by the Nazis and his parents were killed in a concentration camp. Bronner attempted to ply his trade in the U.S., but his fervent preaching of his unorthodox ideas landed him in an Illinois mental institution, where he was given shock treatments.

Escaping from what he dubbed a "concentration camp," he eventually found himself in California, where he single-handedly began brewing what would become his trademark product: an all-natural, tingly peppermint soap that he declared suitable for everything from bathing to enemas. Adding a distinctive element to the product were the labels on which he espoused his philosophies for mankind, or "Moral ABC": they were best summed up in the phrase "All-one-God-Faith!"

Along the way, he also had three children whom he largely neglected, often placing them in foster homes and orphanages. Nevertheless, they continued the family business when Bronner died in 1997; his son Ralph, around whom the film largely focuses, has become his most devoted disciple. The company also became a model of corporate social responsibility with such practices as donating 70% of its net profit to various causes.

The filmmaker has many fascinating elements at her disposal, including extensive archival footage of the idiosyncratic but undeniably compelling Bronner (whose heavy accent is supplemented with subtitles). And the many scenes of Ralph's interactions with various people he encounters demonstrate that the eccentric apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Unfortunately, the self-indulgent film also suffers from a lack of focus that makes one regret that a more accomplished documentarian like Terry Zwigoff hadn't discovered the topic first.