Film Focuses on Enigmatic Psychologist

By Jenn Director Knudsen | January 7, 2015

Like a jazz movement, the new documentary Frank’s Song, by Portland filmmaker David Bee, is at times languid, at others staccato, and sometimes a little drawn out.

Truth is, it’s a tall order for any film to capture the protean life of Frank Wesley ’50, who survived the holocaust, worked in the shipyards, became an influential psychologist and author of many books, and still, at the age of 95, cuts a distinctive figure in the Hawthorne district of southeast Portland.

Frank also is obsessed with jazz. The grizzled, diminutive, always-smiling nonagenarian is often caught on camera sitting in a chair, clutching and absentmindedly repositioning his brass wind instrument, much like a father with an infant. That is, when he’s not blowing into his sax with everything he’s got. “Jazz doesn’t let me die,” he says in his accented, soprano English.

Bee, the director, says in a recent interview, “The whole piece is conceived as an extended jazz song.” Frank’s riffs, such as “Stormy Weather,” “Satin Doll,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” bebop throughout the film.

Born in Silesia, Frank learned English through American jazz aficionados. He recalls with affection the Louis Armstrong performance he attended in Atlanta, not long after he escaped his native Germany and the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered 56,000 people.

Frank came to Portland in 1941 to work at the Oregon Shipbuilding Company, and the local jazz scene was perhaps the reason he stayed. Or maybe it was his proximity to verdant Vernonia, where he built a small, utilitarian cabin. It includes an underground hidey-hole for himself and some food rations, should the Nazis return to get him.

And yet, in 1944 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to Germany to help liberate the very same camp he’d had the fortune to escape.

This turn of events is not fully fleshed out in Frank’s Song, nor are the reasons behind his pursuit of a PhD in psychology, a subject about which he wrote and taught for decades. In the film—cut from more than 85 hours of sometimes herky-jerky footage—his profession is only mentioned in passing.

Nonetheless, the film succeeds in conveying Frank’s singular approach to life. Friend and unofficial caretaker Dr. Andy Mones recalls in one scene how Frank once came into his emergency room seeking treatment. Frank wasn’t the doctor’s usual scared and weary patient. Quite the opposite, Mones says: “In an ER, who hangs out and smiles and whistles a song?”

The film drew 200 people to a screening at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre in December, and soon will run at the Oregon Jewish Museum-Center for Holocaust Education and other venues—a fitting tribute to a free spirit.

Tags: Alumni