From the righteous to the revolting, Jewish Canadian film director Barry Avrich’s documentary profiles run the gamut. But he’s never had a subject quite like Albert Rosenberg.
Nicknamed the Yorkville Swindler after the tony Toronto neighborhood where he allegedly hatched outrageous cons, Rosenberg is the focus of Avrich’s latest film, “The Talented Mr. Rosenberg,” which made its United States premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival last month and has been picked up by Warner Bros, with a fall streaming release date soon to be announced.
“These seem to be the halcyon days of the con artist film,” Avrich told The Times of Israel. “It’s kind of a fun topic around the world.”
The film’s opening minutes refer to additional contemporary con men and women — the late Bernie Madoff, the Tinder Swindler and would-be heiress Anna Sorokin. With a penchant for Porsches and Rothkos, Rosenberg is yet another addition to the genre.
“People are curious,” Avrich said in reflecting on the popularity of crime projects in Hollywood and as streaming series. “They’re curious about FTX, they’re curious about Anna Sorokin or [Inna Yashchyshyn] who claimed to be a Rothschild… They’re curious how other folks got away with it.”
Avrich himself grew up following the straight and narrow. Raised in a kosher home in Montreal, he was close to his grandfather, a well-known local butcher who let needy customers buy on credit. Every weekend, Avrich accompanied his grandfather for collections.
The onetime butcher’s assistant has grown up into an acclaimed documentarian, with his latest recognition coming via “The Talented Mr. Rosenberg.”
According to the hour-plus-long feature, Rosenberg is a serial con artist who has donned multiple guises over the decades, including those of a Swiss baron and a billionaire, while defrauding ex-wives, art galleries, business colleagues and sundry others. His rap sheet dates to the late 1980s and includes multiple prison sentences.
In 2013, the luxury Yorkville penthouse dweller was arrested in a fraud case totaling around $1 million. Two years later, Canadian journalist Courtney Shea profiled Rosenberg for Toronto Life magazine, which not only gave the con artist his memorable nickname, but also brought him to Avrich’s attention. Shea joined the film as a co-producer and co-writer.
Avrich got to interview Rosenberg, who showed up for a session wearing a pink sweater and blue jeans, perched in the front row of an auditorium full of leather couches. On camera, Rosenberg discusses multiple topics, including his Egyptian origins, two books he claims to have written, even a trip to Israel where he met his now-former wife Karin Rosenberg, a Swiss-born heiress to the Ovaltine fortune.
Rosenberg is “tall, very commanding… extremely well-dressed,” Avrich said. “He definitely has an air about him… of affluence, elegance, dignity. He walks into a room with his head up high. He’s not somebody who lives in the shadows.”
And he doesn’t demure when pressed about his past — although what he divulges may not be the truth, or the whole truth.
“The truth is, I did commit those crimes. You can’t just turn around and say ‘I didn’t do it,’ because I did do it,” Rosenberg says at one point in the film, adding: “But not to the extent people are interpreting or saying.”
Rosenberg says he was born in Cairo to parents with vastly different personalities — a father, Salman Rosenberg, who was “one of those tough Germans,” and a mother, Marcelle (Kaye) Rosenberg, whom he describes as an honest, hard-working intellectual and academic.
The family allegedly left Egypt following the 1952 revolution that deposed King Farouk and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. However, according to Shea, Rosenberg lacks a birth certificate and gave competing accounts of a childhood spent in Switzerland or Canada.
In the film, Rosenberg explains how he wound up in Toronto: His parents divorced, his mother remarried, and he moved with the newlyweds to Toronto, where his mother established a swanky new business, La Belle Boutique.
Rosenberg speaks of having an adventurous side early on, including going to Israel following his graduation — although he doesn’t specify which institution he graduated from, and the glittering academic credentials he claimed from the University of Toronto, Harvard and the University of Zurich were hard for Avrich to verify.
“When I graduated,” Rosenberg says in the film, “I decided to go to Israel because I wanted to see the way they live and I wanted to learn Hebrew.”
These motives get challenged by one of his daughters, who speaks with her profile obscured: “Albert was actually sent by Marcelle from Canada to Israel to run away from some kind of legal trouble.”
There’s another wrinkle: Avrich found an engagement listing for Rosenberg’s previous marriage, in 1964 at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue. (The film does not overtly state Rosenberg’s religious identity, nor his family’s.) Yet the marriage ended within months, and the filmmaker states on-camera, “it was time for Albert to get out of town.”
The more Rosenberg talked, the more it necessitated on-the-spot fact-checking.
“[Co-producer Caitlin Cheddie] was constantly passing me notes,” Avrich said. “The math never added up on when he was born, where he was born, the private schools his children attended. He assumed he was right with everything. He did not like to be contradicted.”
Seeking clarity, the filmmakers spoke to others — two of the con man’s ex-wives and one of his three daughters, plus police perspectives and, as a star expert, celebrated journalist and author Diana B. Henriques, who muses over the importance of trust in human relationships and how easily it can be manipulated.
Henriques knows what it’s like to interact with a con man. She not only interviewed the late Bernie Madoff, she wrote a book about it — “The Wizard of Lies,” which was adapted for HBO.
According to Avrich, Henriques sees Rosenberg as worse than Bernie Madoff in many ways: “Not the amount of money,” he said. “Certainly, Bernie was into the multi-billions, the largest fraud in history.”
Rather, he said, “in a lot of ways, [Rosenberg] was taking advantage of people’s love… Bernie’s crimes were financial crimes,” but Rosenberg “left people destroyed, not only financially, but emotionally too.”
The film captures some of this pain. It’s difficult to watch the segment on Rosenberg’s August 14, 2013, arrest by Toronto police. By then, he and Karin had long since divorced, and he had remarried. His new wife accused him of assault after going out for coffee with him to discuss their finances. Now divorced, she says on-camera that he tried to control her life and that she sold her home following a whirlwind courtship, convinced of their future together.
“Balance, for me, was tricky,” Avrich said, “to ensure that the tone of the film would not come across as lenient or forgiving or commiserating with him.”
Avrich has had his share of challenges over his decades-long career. While some of his films have chronicled outstanding members of society — including Ben Ferencz, the oldest surviving Nuremberg prosecutor — others have plumbed the world of scandal.
In the latter category, there’s the CBC/Netflix production “Made You Look,” about the largest art fraud in American history, which targeted the historic Knoedler Gallery in New York City. Avrich has also done two separate films on Harvey Weinstein, “Unorthodox: The Harvey Weinstein Project,” released in 2011; and a post-MeToo scandal biopic, “The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret.”
“I think we were the first #MeToo Harvey Weinstein documentary out of the gate,” Avrich said. “I was probably too early. Nobody really wanted to touch the film. Hollywood doesn’t really like these types of movies around the story of what [the film industry] looks like.”
One project that Avrich ultimately abandoned was a study of the late Jeffrey Epstein. Asked about speculation that Epstein’s death in prison was the cause of its cancellation, the filmmaker replied: “It was scuttled long, long, long, well before his death. It was something I wanted to do, but nobody knew who he was when I tried to sell it. I really tried to expose the fact he was still being a predator. Nobody knew who he was. The more I pulled the lid back on this… the more disgusted I got. I decided to abandon the project long before he killed himself, long before he was charged.”
“The Talented Mr. Rosenberg” also almost didn’t happen. Avrich described Rosenberg’s participation as a must-have. Yet the director grew frustrated with the con man’s contradictory statements. According to the film, relations became tense, and Rosenberg declined to continue.
In the interim, Avrich reached out to others to try to verify Rosenberg’s accounts — including his most recent ex-wife. Not only did this help fill in gaps, but it may also have indirectly led to the completion of the film after Avrich told Rosenberg about those conversations.
“I think he was curious, ultimately, to sit down and talk to me and finish the interview,” Avrich said.
One of Rosenberg’s statements on camera left the director especially astounded.
“He says in the film, and I love this, that he has put all criminal acts behind him,” Avrich said. “It’s hard to believe that. Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t. It’s the only life he’s known.”
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