Escape to Life is an enthralling documentary about Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann, directed by Andrea Weiss and Wieland Speck. Born a year apart, they often pretended to be twins and, indeed, shared much besides their unconditional love for each other. Both gay, both artists, they struggled to establish their own identities in spite of their father's awe-inspiring reputation. The film's title refers to their exile from Nazi Germany in America. Klaus' novels, with their racy depiction of a joyously libertine Weimar Germany, and Erika's cabaret performances, which satirized Nazis, were banned and their citizenship revoked. A rift was formed with their father, when Thomas, mindful of his reputation, initially avoided speaking out against their enemies (until he, too, was forced into exile). And the relationship of the "twins" became strained by the pressures of life in America (the FBI was on their tail), Klaus' drug addiction and Erika's re-establishing close contact with Thomas.

Weiss and Speck capture the rich, turbulent tapestry of the Manns' lives. Vanessa and Corin Redgrave--also politically involved, artistic siblings--play the siblings on the soundtrack, which crackles with their easy camaraderie and wit. The last survivor of Thomas Mann's six children is interviewed, her love and compassionate sympathy for her siblings still very evident. One of the fascinating subjects touched upon here is the unseemly attraction Thomas felt for the beautiful Klaus from childhood, which calls up his own Death in Venice. Other amazing revelations tumble forth: Erika acted in Leontine Sagan's legendary lesbian film, Maedchen in Uniform. She obtained her British citizenship by marrying W.H. Auden. She was eventually, ironically, hounded out of America by Joe McCarthy. Klaus, a pacifist, nonetheless enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight the Germans in World War II. Erika, the more outgoing one, had some fascinating lovers, including the great Brecht actress Theresa Giese. Klaus, who committed suicide at age 43, was, sadly, never able to establish any longstanding relationships and once wrote, "The difficulty of being weighs on me every hour." Speck directs some intriguing recreations of scenes from Klaus' books, which fully presage Christopher Isherwood's more famed Berlin Stories.

--David Noh