Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox

Reckon So Productions. 88 minutes.

If you’ve ever purchased a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, you’ve no doubt wondered what’s up with the rambling phrases crammed onto the label, with their references to the “Moral ABC,” “All-One-God-Faith,” and “God’s Spaceship Earth.”

The story behind the tiny, disjointed doctrines, as told in the entertaining Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, is likely stranger, and sadder, than your wildest speculations. They were written by Emanuel Bronner, a German Jewish immigrant who escaped from an Illinois mental hospital in 1948 before making his way to California, where he established himself as a “master soapmaker chemist.” (It’s unclear where he picked up the “doctor.”) Bronner was a man obsessed, pushing his soap as everything from mouthwash to contraception while pursuing a fanatical, if somewhat endearing, desire to unite the human race.

Bronner, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, repeatedly abandoned his two sons and a daughter in orphanages and foster homes. Director Sara Lamm reserves judgment, but the soapmaker’s progeny’s feelings are mixed. One son clearly thinks the old man was insane. The other has followed his dad’s spiritual path. “All of us that love the soap,” he says, “including me, are abnormal.” Bronner’s grandsons, who took over the multimillion-dollar business after he died in 1997, come across as savvy pragmatists. They’ve kept the famously cryptic label—but only as a quirky branding device.