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Saving Grace

Christine Lahti plays a doctor who performed abortions at Auschwitz to save her patients from certain death—only to be questioned later as an American émigré.

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The Good Doctor: In Out of the Ashes, Christine Lahti plays Gisella Perl, a Hungarian gynecologist and death-camp inmate faced with desperate choices.  

Because it’s a Joseph Sargent film, Out of the Ashes can be counted on to be painstaking, sober, and still civil even when it’s furious. (The director is a gent.) Because it stars Christine Lahti as Dr. Gisella Perl, a Hungarian Jewish gynecologist who survived Auschwitz only to be cross-examined on her behavior by a kangaroo court at our Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1946, it seduces and persuades. (Lahti is the new Glenn Close, a strong woman for all occasions, an adult no matter what.) And because it’s a premium-cable-television production, it can think out loud about abortion without tiptoeing around the ad agencies and the hate groups. (Perl performed perhaps a thousand of them, which is why the INS seemed to think she was Dr. Mengele.)

I haven’t read Perl’s memoir, adapted for television by the same Anne Meredith who adapted Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina for Anjelica Houston. But what we see on the small screen is a brave and difficult woman who seems to be haunted by the same ghostly thoughts that tormented Primo Levi when he got out of Auschwitz: Why me, and not the others? Did the best perish? Where was God? What must I do with this surprise survival? As Levi determined to write his luminous witness, so Perl needed to practice her medicine, to deliver as many babies as possible to make up for all those lost in the charnel houses she refused to call camps, as if they were places we send our children to on summer holidays.

As she talks to the INS, flashbacks allow us to watch Gisella growing up in Hungary, becoming a doctor despite the misgivings of her rabbi father, having children and a practice of her own, until the stormtroopers and cattle cars arrive, after which, in the women’s infirmary at Auschwitz, she tries to save as many patients as she can while avoiding a Josef Mengele played by Jonathan Cake as if he were the Student Prince in an operetta. The fact is that at Auschwitz, pregnant prisoners were exterminated; abortions were the only way Dr. Perl could give these women a chance to survive and have healthier babies later on. But try explaining that to a not-so-supreme court of Beau Bridges, Richard Crenna, and Bruce Davison. Bridges actually leaves the room rather than hear another word from a woman who is disdainful when she ought to be abject, about a moral cul-de-sac where every choice is desperate. He can only condemn other people’s choices because he’s never had to make one in a monstrous world. Still, Out of the Ashes is a TV movie, and so it ends on the Lower East Side with the usual balloonlike uplift, as if redemption were as easily available as pickles.

Pedigree also counts in Framed. Lynda La Plante, who wrote the Helen Mirren Prime Suspect series, is not only executive producer of Framed but also the author of the original source material that’s been adapted by Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, The Big Easy, and Turner & Hooch), who directs as well. I seem to remember liking a longer British version of Framed, with Timothy Dalton instead of Sam Neill, but when you watch too much TV, you think you’ve seen everything.

Neill plays Eddie Meyers, a way-cool con artist hiding out in the Bahamas. He’s spotted by Mike Santini (Rob Lowe), a disgraced police detective who parlays his good luck into a job in a fancy safe house asking questions about money-laundering before Eddie has to testify for the Feds and disappear into Witness Protection. But it’s a two-way interrogation. As if he were the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, Eddie seduces Nick into a lust for upwardly mobilizing to the good life—fine wine, gourmet meals, naughty women, bespoke threads. In this mostly cerebral thriller, everybody’s conning everybody else, and most of them get what they deserve.

Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind (April 2; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) lets friends like David Crosby and James Taylor talk about this latest, indubitable “American Master,” but not too much to interfere seriously with songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning.”

Women in the Theatre (Starting April 4; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; CUNY-TV), besides introducing stars like Rosemary Harris and Cherry Jones, playwrights like Diana Son and Suzan-Lori Parks, and set and costume designers, too, also lets us meet the crackerjack Newsday drama critic Linda Winer, who actually likes listening to people more than yapping at them, and who lets herself be surprised.

Daughter From Danang (April 7; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) is not your usual “American Experience.” In 1975, as the Vietnam war was coming to an end, Mai Thi Kim put her 7-year-old racially mixed daughter, Mai Thai Hiep, on an “Operation Babylift” plane to America. In 1997, married and a mother herself, Mai Thai Hiep, now Heidi, returns to Indochina for the first time. After a huge commotion, her long-lost Vietnamese family, including brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins, makes it clear that they expect her to take care of them with a monthly stipend from now on. Bummer!

Napoleon (April 8 and 9; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) loves the Little Corporal (Christian Clavier) a lot more than most movies and a little more than he deserves. In this international co-production, Isabella Rossellini as Josephine, Gerard Depardieu as Fouche, and John Malkovich as Talleyrand all make spectacles of themselves. What is it with Malkovich and effete French aristocrats?

Lucky (Starting April 8; 10 to 10:30 p.m.; FX) wants us to care about John Corbett, a compulsive gambler who has already squandered the $1 million he won in a Las Vegas poker championship game and has the sort of friends who will make sure he never again breaks even.

Hunter: Back in Force (April 12; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC), not to mention San Diego, where Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer now cop, and where stone-cold killer Gregory Scott Cummins comes gunning for them while they’re trying to bust a bank-robbing ring of female convicts on the oddest of work furloughs. Kicking off a new Saturday-night Hunter series.

Out of the Ashes
Sunday, April 13; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime

Framed
Sunday, April 13; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT.


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