Anyone with a parent or grandparent who remains stubbornly helpless in the face of new technology will appreciate the opening scene of “Ahead of Time,” which shows the documentary’s subject, Ruth Gruber, tapping nimbly away on her Mac.
What makes this scene so surprising is that the journalist, author, photographer and world traveler is closing in on 100 years old. It’s a small but telling example of what’s to come — a look at the early decades in the life of a woman who was game for anything.
Born in Brooklyn, Gruber was something of a wunderkind: By heading to New York University at age 15 and securing a doctorate by 20, she earned herself a bit of celebrity cachet.
Already inclined toward wanderlust, a crush on a German professor led Gruber to spend a year abroad in Cologne in 1931, disregarding her mother’s fears of Adolf Hitler.
But despite her Jewish religion, Gruber was so curious about the increasingly popular politician that she attended a rally to hear him speak. She looked on as he shouted, “Death to the Jews; death to America.”
Even now, after seeing the destruction Hitler unleashed on the world, Gruber tells the story as she does any other, with the evenness and calm of an observer.
These skills of perceptively watching and listening led to Gruber’s successful career in journalism, which took her to the Soviet Arctic to report on women in the region, allowed her to interview her hero Virginia Woolf and gave her the opportunity to report about the SS Exodus, a ship filled with Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors that was commandeered by the British Royal Navy in 1947.
Through interviews, photos and letters, Robert Richman’s documentary gives insight into Gruber’s life as well as the immense potential that comes with an irrepressible personality and a good dose of patience.
Interviews with Gruber herself show a good-natured if soft-spoken woman who seems content at having accomplished all she set out to do.
It’s an inspiring little film on many levels; Gruber was a woman who launched herself through the glass ceiling, and she had the courage to head to mostly unexplored territory, including the Alaskan frontier.
But maybe most important, she seems like a lovely person. During a stint as a civil servant, the erstwhile journalist accompanied Holocaust survivors to the United States.
One woman tells of her compassion and how Gruber helped her plan her wedding. In a camp for displaced people, the woman didn’t have access to stores, so Gruber asked her mother to crochet a veil. And it was Gruber’s mother who ultimately gave the woman away on her wedding day.
So, while “Ahead of Time” is a lesson in history and a poignant tale, the movie also offers a rare glimpse at something of an anomaly: a successful person whose grand ambitions didn’t preclude her kindness.
Starring Ruth Gruber
Directed by Robert Richman
Running time 1 hour 13 minutes