Out of the Ashes, starring Christine Lahti -- A Movie Review and Summary, the Life of Gisella Perl
Tough to watch, but a great retelling of the trial of Gisella Perl
More media on the Holocaust
Out of the Ashes tells the story of Gisella Perl (Christine Lahti), who dreamed of becoming a doctor from the time she was very young. According to her upbringing, her primary responsibility – especially being the firstborn daughter of the family – was to usher a new life into the world. Instead, Gisella combines the dream and the responsibility and becomes an obstetric gynecologist and brings thousands of babies into the world. These dreams, along with her career and family, were shattered when Dr. Perl was sent to Auschwitz to wait out the war in the unspeakable conditions forced on millions of Jews and others who didn’t fit into Hitler’s eugenics program. When the war ended, Gisella walked out of Auschwitz a free woman – but the only surviving member of her entire family. Her parents, sister, son, and husband have all died in the camps.
Gisella attempts to rebuild her life – she moves to the United States to start fresh, but also desires to go back to practicing medicine. The only problem is, all of Dr. Perl’s information and history were destroyed by the government after they sent her to the camp, she was classed an “un-person” and wiped out in every way possible. Of course this means that she can’t get her medical license immediately, there are no longer any records of her having attended medical school. Her entire history must undergo review by committee – a review that quickly turns into an interrogation and veritable criminal investigation when the reviewing committee accuses Gisella Perl of having colluded with the Nazis. Her story slowly unfolds, revealing a history even more horrifying than the loss of her entire family.
This movie cannot be classed as entertainment, but is rather a commentary on a remarkable woman’s life as she dealt with seemingly insurmountable obstacles both during and after the war, as well as an excellent movie for further insight into the horrors of the Holocaust. While the movie contains many heart-wrenching elements of the true story of Dr. Gisella Perl’s time as Dr. Josef Mengele’s assistant in Auschwitz, the gruesome scenes can never touch on the reality she had to face. The first few minutes kind of drag by, detailing Dr. Perl’s arrival in the US and the beginning of her ordeal in retelling her story, but then the pace picks up with flashbacks that start with her arrival in Auschwitz where she entrusts her son to the care of a sick friend as anyone requiring medical care is herded onto Red Cross trucks. She then sights her sister in the crowd, who is in a different line than Gisella herself. This is a relatively easy beginning, before Dr. Perl learns that here it will be necessary to employ her expertise to save lives – by taking much younger ones.
The first very noticeable feature about this film is the acting, which is top-notch for the most part – it must really be a challenge to accurately portray all the horror and anguish that go into this story. The investigators included Beau Bridges, Bruce Davison and Richard Crenna, who interacted extremely well and offered a great spectrum of responses to Dr. Gisella Perl. They also helped really drive home the point as to how unfairly many Holocaust survivors were treated when they came to the United States and other countries for refuge directly after having survived a hell that previously could scarcely be imagined. Nina Young and Zoie Palmer stood out as well, the first as a particularly sadistic SS officer who guarded the women, and the latter as a fellow inmate. Jonathan Cake’s excellent portrayal of Dr. Mengele makes it a lot easier to see why so many people failed to see the diabolical man beneath the gentlemanly façade. This man was suave and handsome, and had a knack for getting people to trust him and listen to him. At the same time, he regularly murdered, tortured, and dissected women and children while sending thousands of others to die in the gas chambers without batting an eye.
Out of the Ashes centers around Perl’s time in the camps manning the infirmary, “disposing” of live births or aborting pregnancies to save the babies’ mothers, and her forced assistance in Dr. Mengele’s diabolical and notorious experiments on twins and similar “genetic anomalies” and their mothers. Even my own husband, with over 30 years of working as a surgical technician and who has never had a problem with blood, couldn’t finish watching the movie. He can stand watching human misery within some limits, and violence and gore are quite commonplace in the movie industry, but watching violence against babies and children couldn’t be tolerated. A particularly disturbing scene that showed how Dr. Perl had to deal with one of hundreds of live births necessitated a break. Finally, after two days, I was able to bring myself to finish watching Out of the Ashes alone. After a scene in which a baby is strangled, having been aborted too late, it was definitely time to take a break. Two days later I finished watching the film by myself.
Probably the most notable thing about this film is that it doesn’t attempt to veil any of the violence and more graphic events, so keep this away from children and the faint of heart at all costs. It is designed to really hit between the eyes, and it fulfills this objective admirably.
Overall, I have yet to find a more gut-wrenching movie, whether in fiction or non-fiction. That said, it does provide a little inspiration at the end. Out of the Ashes is definitely the wrong movie to watch if you prefer to maintain a blindness toward history’s tragedies. Anyone who believes that history will repeat itself unless we take measures to understand it and apply the lessons learned will get a lot of value out of the story that Out of the Ashes has to tell. Prepare for a movie that may not be able to be watched all at once, and that will haunt you for some time.