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Lahti's Performance Rises From 'Ashes'

Actress Christine Lahti gives an Emmy-worthy performance in Showtime's Out of the Ashes ,
a biopic about Dr. Gisella Perl, a Holocaust survivor who migrated to New York, where she had to fight to resume her career as a physician.

The film is framed in the post-war period. We see the horror of Perl's Auschwitz experience as she is forced to recount it for a smirky, judgmental U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service panel. It's Lahti's showcase — the panelists, including the late Richard Crenna, Beau Bridges and Bruce Davison, get barely more than reaction shots for most of the film.

But Lahti is amazing to watch as she layers on what sounds like a credible Hungarian accent. The actress was evidently made to play this woman: Production notes state that the actress read an article about Perl 20 years ago and clipped out the item, hoping one day to depict her story. She has certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Perl's indomitable spirit is revealed early, when as a child she announces her plans to become a doctor at a time when the medical ranks included few who were Jewish and female. She vows to remain devout, have a family and pursue her dreams. She marries another doctor and raises a talented family, only to see them all wiped out by the Nazis. Perl is the sole family survivor of Auschwitz, where her profession brings her to the attention of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele (Johnathan Cake).

This contact is not the only thing that concerns the INS years later. The government also finds out that Perl was responsible for more than 1,000 abortions during her imprisonment. The doctor has to explain — to men who have never faced the sort of survival challenges she encountered — how she could choose to "kill babies" to save her people.

The flashback structure keeps the film from straying into smarmy sentimentality, but it also robs some of its poignancy. We find ourselves viewing the horror at times with as much detachment as Perl must muster in order to cope with the pain.

The film is only flawed when it tries to portray modern-day Toronto, with little set dressing, as post-war Manhattan, and when it uses some footage that screams "archival."

Out of the Ashes debuted April 13 on Showtime with encores slated for April 17, 21 and 27.