In a previous era of international conflict, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and then, in 1953, executed as spies. HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is a new documentary by their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004, and then was shown in several other festivals as well as on HBO cable TV. Now HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is available on DVD.
JAN LISA HUTTNER (JLH) talked to the director about the lessons her film holds for the past, and for the present.
JLH: Americans have been flooded with documentaries about contemporary politics all summer… films like FAHRENHEIT 9/11. HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is about something that happened in the 1950s. Why should we care about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg right now?
Ivy Meeropol: What happens when our country submits to fear and hysteria? What are we willing to do as a people? If we look at what happened in America during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, we can learn a lot about how not to proceed.
In HEIR TO AN EXECUTION, I show footage of Joe McCarthy. Someone asks him: “How do you, sir, define ‘McCarthyism’?” And he says, “Calling a man a Communist who is later proven to be one.” If people really listen to that statement, they will hear exactly what is going on today. Since 9/11, we’ve arrested people, hoping to build a case against them after they’re already arrested. That’s not the way this country is supposed to work.
The McCarthy era was all about quashing dissent in the name of national security, and that’s what we’re doing today. There were massive, peaceful marches in the period leading up to the start of the Iraq War, but the protesters were told that they were “unpatriotic.” You don’t support the troops if you have any questions for the government? This country is supposed to be about encouraging dissent; that’s the beauty of democracy.
My grandparents wanted a better world. When you look at it really hard, yes, maybe Julius Rosenberg was involved in some kind of espionage. But they were not about overthrowing the U.S. Government. They had so much hope. They cared. People forget that in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when my grandparents became politically active, we didn’t have eight hour workdays, unemployment insurance, and child labor laws. Without people like my grandparents, we wouldn’t have so many of the things we take for granted today. “The capitalist exploitation of the masses,” that’s not just Communist rhetoric.
Click HERE to read complete chat with Ivy Meeropol at FILMS FOR TWO.