Heir to an Execution
Photos and Video
The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remains a historical flashpoint five decades on. For some, it is the apex of McCarthyist Cold War hysteria. For others, it is a moment of exacting justice in an era of real and immediate danger. For Ivy Meeropol, the issue is much more significant and complex -- the Rosenbergs were her grandparents. In her exploration of their bittersweet legacy, Meeropol deftly rethinks the matter of the Rosenbergs' guilt versus innocence, but she focuses on a more personal question: Why would they keep their silence, knowing that it might lead to their execution, when they had two young children (Meeropol's father and uncle) who loved and needed them? What she finds, through extensive interviews with friends and family and a thorough retelling of the trial and its aftermath, is that time has not healed all wounds. A map of the cemetery where they're buried does not list the Rosenbergs' gravestones, and many family members still refuse to speak about the trial on camera (though interviews with her father and uncle are poignant and revealing). But she also discovers that their silence, seemingly so damning to their family, was seen as an act of great courage by those whose lives were saved because the Rosenbergs refused to capitulate to their jailors. As Meeropol undergoes a sometimes painful transformation in her opinion of her tragic family history, she also comes upon more and more unanswered questions -- but they're ones whose answers can only come from those whose absence prompted the questions in the first place.
Director's Statement Collapse
This film was born out of questions I've had my whole life. I grew up with the story of my grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed by the U.S. government in 1953. I knew that my father had been orphaned but that his parents had acted heroically in their resistance of the government. I knew that they were revered and reviled with equal conviction; that they were called both martyrs and traitors. It was simply a fact of my life, and it helped define who I am. Long before I embarked on this film, I began to wonder who they really were and how this could have happened to our family? After I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, I worked in politics as a legislative aide and speechwriter for a U.S. Congressman and later began working as a journalist while also writing screenplays and short stories. It is from this vantage point that I started working on what would become Heir to an Execution. I wanted to create a work that told our family story and reflected the political and intellectual climate of the time. I was at first unclear on how to tell the story, toying with the idea of a fictional treatment, either in film or writing until I recognized two things that would become crucial to how the film looks today. One was that there were people still living who knew my grandparents, were close witnesses to the case, or had lived parallel lives. This was a rich resource of actual subjects who could tell their own stories. The other element was the beautiful and disturbing archival footage that had so affected me as a child that is, in itself, an essential part of the story. I came to the conclusion that I did not want to fictionalize the story because it would create distance whereas the documentary form would allow me, as well as the audience, to get closer to the subject. I started out wanting to explore the ways that the Rosenbergs exist as The Atom Spies, iconic figures, and great villains in our culture, versus the way that the grandparents reside in my own life. It is from my particular point of view that I've sought to humanize them. Rescue them from the obscurity of fame. Take them out of the mythic realm and into the human world and know them a little more as people. Not monsters and not martyrs, but the parents of my own father, a young husband and wife, a homemaker who aspired to be an opera singer, an engineer who struggled to keep a small machine shop running. This is a search for my grandparents, my attempt to get closer to the human story and understand how it is possible to feel pride, fear, anger and sadness about two people I have never met. By exploring the complex reverberations the Rosenbergs' fate had on their own family and the culture at large, I hoped to tell their story in a uniquely illuminating way and in doing so, come to understand something of who they were. Consequently, I also hoped to show this part of our history to a new generation for whom the names Ethel and Julius Rosenberg mean nothing. And for those who recognize "those Atom Spies," this film would be an experience that challenges conventional wisdom and the very way that history is recorded. I hope the film reveals that it is in the gray areas that history resides, not in the black and white we've grown so accustomed to. I began the film knowing that my father was to be a central figure. What I came to realize along the way was how my own interest in the story was as much a desire to know what happened to my grandparents as it was the need to know what had happened to my father. I decided that all of the "interviews" with my father (and subsequently the rest of my immediate family) had to be conducted with only the two of us present and that the filming had to create a sense of intimacy between us and between the viewer and the subject. I wanted the audience to feel as if they were privy to something very personal, yet not as voyeurs. My father speaks directly to me and into
Film Information Collapse
[HEIRT] | 2003 | 99 | Documentary Feature
Foreign Title: (Heir to an Execution)
Premiere: New York
About the Director(s)Collapse
Ivy Meeropol spent five years working as a speechwriter and legislative aide for a U.S. Congressman. She has also worked as a freelance journalist for such publications as the New York Times and O magazine, and was a contributor and fiction editor of Provincetown Arts magazine. Meeropol is the author of numerous screenplays including, with Mark Campbell, the screen adaptation of Dawn Powell's The Happy Island. Heir to an Execution is Meeropol's directorial debut. The film, which she coproduced with Daphne Pinkerson, Marc Levin, and Sheila Nevins, was selected for the Documentary Competition of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and short-listed for an Academy Award®.