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Local Film Tweets

A Review of "Theme: Murder "

Art dealer Hyman Swetzoff was murdered in Boston in 1968. Thirty years later, his life and still unsolved murder is the subject of the film "Theme: Murder" directed by his daughter Martha Swetzoff.

By Chris Cooke


Martha Swetzoff is haunted by an image: her father lying dead in a pool of his own blood. Beaten and left to die in his apartment, Hyman Swetzoff found the strength to go out for help. But his pleas fell on deaf ears, and he returned home, where he was found the following night. His killer was never found. In the 30 years since, the events surrounding her father’s death have grown into an obsession for Martha. "The pool of blood has become a river of blood," she tells us in her documentary/memoir "Theme: Murder." "I’m floating down the river in this raft, and I can’t steer it. The blood is my father’s blood, but it is also my blood." His death has become a defining moment in her life, and in her quest to understand him and his murder, she hopes to find the key to understanding herself. Her new film relates this journey toward self-knowledge.

Hyman Swetzoff was a prominent art dealer in Boston from the 1940s until his death, promoting both local artists and European masters such as Paul Klee, Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, many of them relatively unknown in America at the time. His early ambitions were to be a writer, and his writings show him to be a man driven by complex and conflicting desires — his wish to bring art to the public tempered by his contempt of the public’s ignorance of art, his need to prove himself perhaps fueled by self-hatred, his desire for a family thwarted by his feelings of isolation. And even his early writing show a preoccupation with murder, in particular his own. "I want to commit a murderer’s act," he writes. "Death came running towards me from a direction I never suspected. Who knows the true story of anything?" Not surprisingly, the title of the film comes from his own words: "I want to write a little play for children — theme: murder."

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Filmmaker Martha Swetzoff then and now.

Ironically, the legacy he leaves his children is the unknowable story of his own murder. Martha in particular felt a strong bond with her father, one that hasn’t diminished over time. The film chronicles her initial reactions to his death and the series of questions it has left her with. Did his self-destructive instincts lead to his own death? Have these instincts been passed on to her? She learns to associate an artistic life with early and violent death. She finds herself leading, like him, a double life, active on the exterior but deeply troubled within.

The film skillfully weaves interviews of family, friends, local artists, police investigators, and others (including an appearance by James Ellroy, author of "Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential," whose own mother’s murder remains unsolved) with an assortment of family photos, newspaper clippings of the murder, excepts from her earlier movie about her father’s death ("The Garden," made in 1979, when she was only nineteen), and fragments from Hyman’s poetry, journals, and letters. Lush imagery of water, clouds, and especially foliage permeates the film. Greenery inherently suggests renewal, rebirth, and growth, but Swetzoff makes her stepfather’s garden—her new home after the murder—seem labyrinthine, often dark and dense, at times stark and withered, sometimes fragile, ethereal, ghostlike. The effect is chilling, suggesting the brooding confusion, anger, and alienation the murder has instilled in her psyche.

If there is anything at all unsatisfying about the movie, it is its open-ended conclusion; Swetzoff and her film never arrive upon the "parcel of truth" she so desperately craves. Consequently, watching "Theme: Murder" is something like seeing "Apocalypse Now" only three-quarters of the way through. It’s a fascinating and eerie trip, but Swetzoff stops just a touch short of confronting darkness face to face — the darkness in her father, in herself, and in all of us. In a way, the film has two conflicting purposes: to pay tribute to her father and his gallery and to explore the self-destructive side of his personality and the legacy his death. It’s difficult to thoroughly pursue one while still clinging to the other.

Regardless, "Theme: Murder" is a good film, a serious film that asks many of life’s important questions with intelligence and poignancy. If it has no easy answers, it’s because there are none. "When does the search for meaning stop?" asks Swetzoff at the film’s conclusion. I suspect her search is not yet over, that we may be blessed with more of her films in the future. I look forward to seeing them.

Art dealer Hyman Swetzoff was murdered in Boston in 1968. Thirty years later, his life and still unsolved murder is the subject of the film "Theme: Murder" directed by his daughter Martha Swetzoff.