A documentary made in 1974 about an event that began to unfold almost 30 years prior—and is still unfolding to this day—can hardly be looked at as the authoritative source on its subject matter. Still, in telling the story of the couple the American government put to death for conspiracy to commit treason in 1953, the 83-minute film, The Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, aka The Rosenberg-Sobell Case Revisited, presents an audience with more and better information on the events surrounding the Rosenberg trial than most public schools teach over 13 years. The Chicago based distributor Facets has made the movie available on DVD for the first time, and although I wouldn’t predict record sales or an onslaught of hype, somewhere, some folks have cause for rejoice.
The Rosenbergs remain a symbol for one of American politics’ darkest hours because of how egregiously they were convicted and executed. Even those with more than the average rudimentary understanding of this story aren’t immune to being shocked again and again as more and more facts of the case are revisited. Even before David Greenglass, who sent his sister Ethel to the electric chair with his testimony, recanted to The New York Times in the mid-‘90s, it was obvious that the evidence against the Rosenbergs was almost entirely bogus or trumped up. That this film, a modestly budgeted and dated documentary made for PBS audiences, is still in 2010 a powerful, revealing, and relevant discussion of the case illustrates the quality of reporting involved with the picture, and it also serves as a reminder of the importance of broadcast journalism.
Alan Moorman directed the movie, and it was produced and written by Alvin Goldstein, who appears on screen a few times. In bringing the early ‘50s to life, Goldstein and Moorman use montages of newspaper headlines, footage pertaining to nuclear fears, and clips of figures central to the political climate of the era. The newspaper montages, in particularly, are surprisingly effective, and they’re accompanied by industrial sounds of grinding and clacking. (It’s a bizarre choice, but it works). Nothing is more gripping, though, than the clip of Hearst reporter Ben Considine describing the executions moments after witnessing them, starting with the strange sounds Julius made as he died and moving on to Ethel, who “died a lot harder”, as a “ghastly plume of smoke rose from her head”.
The Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which was among the first films to examine FBI and CIA files that had been released to the public in 1973, uses that footage to usher viewers from a broad conversation about paranoia in the atomic age into the heart of the film. Through narration and trial transcripts read by actors, the realities of the court case are revealed. The sequence is devoid of interruptions to debunk witnesses’ untruths or illuminate shady statements by prosecutors.
The filmmakers obviously curate the information being presented, but most of it is treated as cold, hard fact—he said this, she said that. The prosecution’s case rested largely on fishy statements and a hotel registration card. In the time of McCarthyism, it was enough to convict and kill two people, a Jewish couple from the Bronx, who refused to answer questions about their political beliefs. To today’s viewer, it’s all but impossible to be convinced of the Rosenbergs’ overarching innocence or sainthood, yet it’s more difficult to fathom that trial producing the outcome it did.
When the film has moved through the narrative of the trial, we get a series of interviews with people instrumental to the case: former FBI agents, Roy Cohn, Gloria Agrin, the grown children of the Rosenbergs, and more. This is where the film is at its most engaging. A federal agent admits to Goldstein that he “suggested” to a witness that what he may have meant to say, rather than, “Benny sent me”, was, “I come from Julius”. Later we learn, via a released government file, that it was in fact Greenglass who first “suggested” Julius’ name to the witness. The interviews bring out several more jaw-droppers, and by the time the film focuses squarely on memos that were never meant for public consumption, most viewers will be approaching their threshold for outrage.
One missive says optimistically that within the government there exists an opportunity to “utilize the Rosenbergs as figures in an effective international psychological warfare campaign against communism primarily on the Jewish issue”. Unfortunately, when the movie should be at its most incendiary, it begins to run out of steam. Although the information revealed is nothing short of shocking, there’s only so much large text and accompanying voiceover today’s audience can be appalled by. Considering that the documentary is 36-years-old, however, some stylistic choices must be forgiven.
The DVD is bare except for the movie, and it breaks the film down into only five navigable chapters.