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Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story
Heir to an Execution A Granddaughter's Story
Director: Ivy Meeropol
Genres: Documentary
NR     2004     1hr 39min

The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the height of The Cold War shook America to its core. And in light of the stranglehold Senator Joe McCarthy's red scare propaganda had on the nation, a true refl...  more »


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Movie Details

Director: Ivy Meeropol
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Biography
Studio: Hbo Home Video
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 09/14/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 1hr 39min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English, Spanish

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Movie Reviews

Overwhelming, sensitive, and understated
Dr Cathy Goodwin | Seattle, WA USA | 02/07/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Fifty years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as spies, their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol made this film to understand her grandparents more intimately and humanly.

As a narrator, Meeropol offers charm and charisma. In fact, the whole family seems incredibly normal and, well, nice. Her father and uncle, the Rosenberg sons, survived what many would view as childhood trauma: reading about their parents in the media, visiting their parents in prison, temporary stays in group homes. They were lucky to live in a pre-pop-psych era and even luckier to be adopted by the loving Meeropols.

The Rosenberg sons always believed in the innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Through release of formerly classified documents, it's obvious that Julius did some sort of spying. But realistically he probably was a small fish, in over his head, caught up in the government's search for a scapegoat.

Sure, Khruschev mentions the Rosenbergs in his biography, and Julius (but not Ethel) had a couple of code names, but another KGB agent came forward late in his life to say, "They really didn't amount to much." And another accused party member, Miriam Moskowitz, questions the Venona documents when she's interviewed: mostly scraps, she says, except for the Rosenbergs' very complete file.

Ivy's cousin Rachel, a newly-minted lawyer, summarizes the tragedy succinctly. Even if guilty, Ethel and Julius deserved a fair trial, and they didn't get one. The prosecutor engaged in illegal ex parte (out of court) communication with the judge. Ethel's brother David Greenglass has admitted he gave false testimony. The Rosenbergs were accused of accepting a console table with spy equipment; the table turned out to be what they claimed -- an ordinary table they bought at Macy's.

Would the Rosenbergs really have saved their lives if they had turned in their friends? Would they have spent years in prison -- perhaps worse than the death sentence? Was their sacrifice pointless?

The real question should be: Why did they have to make these choices? I recommend watching this DVD along with Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a Jewish family accused of child abuse in the 1980's. Once again, district attorneys offered reduced sentences in exchange for accusations. And over and over again, people accused of drug dealing can get reduced sentences only by turning in others. Ironically, those low on the chain often know nobody, or know only undercover agents, so they get longer sentences.

Originally, Ethel was arrested to motivate Julius to confess. Even today prosecutors still attack wives in hopes of "softening" a husband, as in the case of one Enron executive. When the husbands don't crumble, wives who were marginally (or not at all) involved are punished.

So I believe this film raises questions about the logistics of contemporary justice. When faced with long prison terms, many people will say anything to save themselves and their families. They'll invent stories, which will become "evidence" against others, often without independent corroboration. Prosecutors seem to have no qualms about punishing innocent people to nudge the guilty.

And jury verdicts often depend not on logic or reason but on whether they like the defendants. They didn't like Julius and Ethel. They were viewed as hard and detached. But most likely they thought the proceedings were ludicrous -- the table from Macy's was bugged? -- and never expected to be convicted.

Is this what "innocent till proven guilty" means? Do we want to convict criminals based on coerced testimony? Do we want verdicts based on folkloric beliefs about a defendant's demeanor? Those are the real questions for viewers of this documentary.

Complicated Case Told From Another Perspective
political idiot | california | 06/06/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This documentary is well done but it is very narrow in scope. Granddaughter/filmmaker Ivy Meeropol focuses her effort on trying to understand the grandparents she never knew through the eyes of her father Michael, eldest son of the Rosenbergs, his younger brother Robert, and through some of the Rosenberg's closest surviving friends. A key element is the distance created by all other family members including distant relatives, even to this day.

This documentary assumes the viewer is intimate with the Rosenberg case, the fervor of McCarthyism, and the red scare -at least from the perspective of what the official story was. With that assumption in place she tells the story from the inside out. This is a moving side of the story to tell and at times a tough film to watch; however, it is not filled with the saccharine sentiment one may expect.

While this documentary is expectedly one-sided, surprisingly it is not totally absent scrutiny. Ivy explores tough questions: Was Julius a communist? Yes. Was he a spy? Yes. Did he ever trade any secrets that compromised our national security or resulted in the death of any American? Very hard to tell, but probably not. Was Ethel a communist? Well, yes but mostly by association. Was she a dedicated wife and mother? My take is that she was more of a dedicated wife then mother, but I may be completely wrong. She was put in a very tough position where every choice was a lose/lose. All the government ever really had on her was being loyal to her husband.

This documentary may well upset supporters who view the Rosenbergs as leftist martyrs, as well as detractors who condemn them as agents of Stalin. I think it is clear that without Ethel's brother, David Greenglass as a key liar on the stand, a rabid call for the heads of communists, and a very politically charged case, the Rosenbergs would not have been executed. A long prison sentence may well have been more appropriate. As one political commentator pointed out, they died because they refused to confess and name others. Someday, that may well turn out to be the truth.

There is no doubt that Communism -especially any Marxist based communism like Soviet Communism, is quite an atrocity against humanity; dare I say, it may have even been evil. That said, should the Rosenbergs have died for their actions, or lack of action in the case of Ethel? This documentary will not help one make the decision either way any easier. It will, however, tell the lost story of those most intimately impacted by these executions. I am a strong advocate for the death penalty. However, my position is mostly philosophical because it should be reserved for only the most heinous of violent criminals and under specific conditions. It is cases like the Rosenberg's that creates murky confusion, not clarity, for the arguments for and against the death penalty.

For those familiar with the case, this is a great added dimension to understanding a complex and uncertain time in our history."
A fortunate daughter shares her quest.
Russell Fanelli | Longmeadow, MA USA | 06/11/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Ivy Meeropol takes us behind the scenes into the lives of the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison for treason in June of 1953. This extraordinary documentary focuses primarily on the impact of this tragic miscarriage of justice on Ivy and her family. Viewers who expect to learn about the facts of Rosenberg case are advised to look elsewhere; this is Ivy's story primarly, although we do learn enough about Ethel Rosenberg to appreciate that this was a woman of remarkable integrity and courage. She could easily have saved her life by betraying her friends and family. She chose death before dishonor.

Ivy's father Michael and her uncle Robert were young children abandoned by their relatives who did not want to be associated with anyone connected with the notorious Rosenberg trial. Ann and Abel Meeropol adopted the two boys; Michael became a college professor and Robert a lawyer. Both men have spent much of their adult lives attempting to learn the true facts of the case against their parents.

Ivy discovers that Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, by his own admission, gave false testimony against his sister. In one scene of the film she drives by the home of Greenglass, but decides against interviewing him. Greenglass has worked hard to disappear from the public view and has, for the most part, been successful. Ivy is not ready to question Greenglass about his false testimony. We respect her reticence in this sensitive matter.

Ivy does visit other relatives, some of whom are now ashamed that they did not have the courage to support the innocent children of the Rosenbergs. Ivy's purpose is to reestablish family ties; accusation and blame are not on her agenda.

The fact that Ivy comes from a loving family helps us to understand her strength as she confronts the bigotry and lies she tries to dispel with openness and truth. She is supported completely by her father Michael, her mother Ann, and her brother Gregg.

Heir to an Execution is, perhaps, the wrong title for this moving documentary. This title suggests an unhappy ending for Ivy and nothing could be more mistaken. Ivy's journey reveals to her that she is the fortunate daughter of a family that has survived misfortune and become stronger, not by disappearing as David Greenglass has attempted to do, but instead by going public and seeking the truth. We, the viewers, are fortunate that Ivy has decided to share her quest with us. Highly recommended!

Heir to an Execution
John Farr | 07/19/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This touching, powerful documentary re-opens old wounds that have yet to heal, a fifty year old espionage case that still defies reason. An innocent grand-child wants to understand what really happened, and though she (and we) get somewhat closer to the truth, we discover there is much that may never be explained, facts and motivations obscured by time, raw emotion, and deep-seated allegiances and frailties. Engrossing, important viewing."