Film Reviews

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox Sara Lamm

Rating - 7/10

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox recently came to Norfolk, VA as the last free documentary screening at the Boot for the Naro Expanded Cinema's annual Green Screen Festival. Directed by Sara Lamm, it takes as its subject eccentric cult hero Emanuel Bronner, a blind master soapmaker who fled Germany as Nazism was beginning to take hold, landing in America to lead a turbulent but successful life marketing an all purpose peppermint soap whose labels famously promoted his muddled but humanistic "All One" philosophy, incorporating quotes from everybody from Albert Einstein to Olympian Mark Spitz, making his most powerful soapbox his literal containers of soap. The convoluted magnitude of that sentence should hint at what a peculiar story this is, and with its wealth of personal recollection and archival footage this was a much more fascinating and entertaining movie than the first screening I caught at the Boot, Deborah Koons' smugly boring The Future Of Food.

Emanuel Bronner died in 1997, and along with the reconstructed history of this strange figure, the story is as much about his son Ralph's crusade to share his father's story. Ralph travels constantly, dispensing free soap and articles talking to anybody who will listen with the eerily positive compassion and boundless enthusiasm that can only come from somebody who has had great pain in his life, ending up off Broadway in a one man show about his father that looks as if it must have been difficult to watch, but sure is inspiring. Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap may be a product known for cleansing fringe dwellers (read: hippies) not particularly known for cleanliness, but the real story is how an ethical company more concerned (at least in its founder's life) with the radical pan-religious screeds on the package than a profit line continues to succeed with idealistic business practices (the highest paid employees can make no more than five times as much as the least, and the company gives away most of its net to charity, its production techniques are environmentally progressive). As we compare the ranting madman Emanuel with the creepy person lover, Ralph, however, there is the curious question as the generations soften as to whether the little soap business will continue to become more functional and embracing or slowly lose its fire over succeeding generations until it finally gets its Michael Eisner and becomes a corporate product. For the time being, it is inspiring to see how such an obscure and rigorously moral product has become a fixture in the homes of diverse societal outcasts reaching across generations and inclinations. If nothing else, the story certainly shamed me for my Dove (TM) Soap Bar littered bathroom.

While flirting with hagiography, the movie also makes a decision to take a clear eyed view of Dr. Bronner's less glamorous or attractive features, not avoiding them, but not lingering either. Despite his love for the common people, he was a rabid anti-Communist, contacting the government enough and in such eccentric detail about the threat to be consigned to the FBI's nut file. A German Jew who admired prophets and teachers like Hillel, he harboured a conflict about his cultural identity that led him to favour his more Aryan children. And about those children, he was arrogantly neglectful, leaving them to foster care and various surrogates as he went on to rage his own self styled crusades. It is impossible not to see some deeply buried familial conflict in the worshipful and disturbingly sympathetic Ralph (the least favoured and most apparently Semitic child), ever dedicated to filling out his father's shadow. Speaking of his father's frequent absence, he rationalizes that visionaries just can't be good parents, and poses the question of whether it's better to hold one's family together, or labour to unite spaceship Earth? Its a compelling question.