Israeli director Uri Barbash describes the past two months in Poland, making the final preparations for filming the movie "Spring 1941" as "a once in a lifetime experience".
This journey to the depths of hell is accompanied by a cast of British and Polish actors led by Joseph Fiennes, Claire Higgins, Neve Macintosh, Mirik Baka, and Maria Pakulnis.
“Spring 1941” returns Clara Fink (Claire Higgins), a world-famous Jewish cellist who lives in Canada, to the Polish town where she was born, for a dedication of a concert hall in her name. It has been 30 years since she left the country that betrayed her and she has not looked back.
She returns to contend with the past. Flashbacks from the spring of 1941, when she lost in one single blow her entire world, keep flooding back to her - her physician husband, her two daughters, the occupation of the city by the German army, and the hiding place they find with a farmer’s wife that changed their lives.
Barbash and Fiennes in Poland
“Every movie is an exhausting journey to the unknown, but this project is a dream come true and I hope that in the end it will not become a nightmare”, Barbash says, “This is a once in a lifetime experience because of the nature of the story, the subject, the way it is being filmed, and the people making it”.
The screenplay, written by Motti Lerner, is essentially a combination of two of Ida Fink’s short stories, “A Conversation” and “Spring Morning”, with hints and nuances from the author’s other writings.
“All of Ida Fink’s stories talk about that period, that milieu, and about the everyday life of people trying to survive and remain human beings during the hell of the Holocaust. Understandably, drawing inspiration from Ida Fink’s works is like being attached to a nuclear reactor”.
Even though Barbash is not a second-generation survivor, this “nuclear reactor” flows in his veins.
“In my opinion, the Holocaust is not just history. It influences my daily life, it is the most essential thing in my life”, he says. “Unfortunately this is the only film project on the subject that I have been able to do, excluding “Kastner’s Trial” which I also worked with Motti Lerner. Every other project I tried making on the subject of the Holocaust since then, did not succeed.
"At face value it is not an attractive subject or a ratings success for the people who are willing to invest money, or for television, where I have also tried a few times”.
If he had the opportunity to choose, Barbash said that the Holocaust would be the only subject for his work. “I read it, I live it. I named my daughter Tema, after a Jew from the Warsaw ghetto named Tema Shneiderman. I am not a second-generation survivor, and yet it appears to be genetic”.
Filming of the movie began in Poland last week and will continue for a month and a half. Together with finding the locations and preparing for the filming, Barbash will be staying in Poland for a few months.
“Despite my closeness to the subject, I was never in Poland by decision. I was also never in Germany. I thought that I needed a very good reason to make this journey and the project “Spring 1941” seemed like a good enough reason”, he says.
“I arrived here with many fears and with the baggage of Polish literature and poetry which I have been close to for many years and is an inseparable part of my inner world. It is strange, but I very quickly felt at home and so I felt guilty. I felt that I had arrived in a place where I had already been, and I found myself torn”.
The reason for these difficult feelings stems from the fact that, before the war, the city of Lodz where Barbash has spent the past few months, had a Jewish population of 233,000 people, making up 34% of the city's residents. Today only 250 Jews live there.
“Since the story takes place in Poland we decided to find Polish partners for the film”, says Evyatar Dotan of the Israeli film company, Traxis, which is responsible for carrying out this ambitious film project. “The complete production budget is $2.4 million and we are in touch with Sony Pictures for the distribution rights to the film. The Poles were very excited about the motifs in the film and they also see it as a mission”.
The Polish Film Institute is working with Traxis as an equal partner, and giving "Spring 1941" the highest budget of all its films this year.
The Israeli production, in which the Rabinovitch fund is also a partner, aroused great interest in Poland. It is being written and spoken
In the apartment of Kieslowski’s director’s assistant
Barbash arrived at Joseph Fiennes through British casting director Emma Style. “For a few years, since I saw him in “Elizabeth” and “Shakespeare in Love”, I knew that I wanted to work with him”, he recounts, “I remember that I wrote his name on a small piece of paper that I kept in my diary. There is something moving about his ability to range from a naïve, innocent character to a psychopath who can easily kill in cold blood. He can equally transmit these qualities. Besides the fact that he looks Jewish, Polish, even Israeli. He is not your typical Englishman”.
Author Ida Fink
Fiennes has no connection to Judaism and yet, according to Barbash, their connection was immediate. “He connected to it with a worrisome obsession. Excluding a circumcision he did everything to better understand what it means to be a Jew”, he said.
"He asked what to eat, what to wear, innocent questions that foreign actors ask on the fate of the Jewish people, which forced me to contend with them. Clara and Arthur were young assimilated Jews in Poland. They had no Jewish rituals and this bothered Joseph. He asked me 'How did they know that I was a Jew'. I answered 'from the fear in your eyes. You never really feel safe. Even with the most Aryan appearance, you are still a Jew'”.
The work with the Polish actors on the film, which has extended over the past months, moved him to tears. "They broke my heart more than once”, he admits. A woman who for many years served as an assistant to the late Oscar-nominated Polist director Krzysztof Kieslowski did the casting in Poland.
“She has an apartment in Warsaw, where the ghetto was located. When you sit in the apartment of Kieslowski’s assistant director, in a place where the ghetto stood and meet Polish actors for a movie that is based on Ida Fink’s stories, who needs to make a movie?” he says.
One of the strongest moments in the past few months was during rehearsals with five Polish extras who were portraying soldiers about to murder a Jewish family. “They refused to do it during rehearsals, they said it went against their human ethics”, says Barbash and adds, “The relationship with the Poles has not been simple throughout history - even this film had significance almost everyday. Everyone felt his suffering and pain”.
One night on the way back to Lodz from location scouting the group stopped to eat in a small town. “I asked where we were, and they said “in Kielce”. I asked the driver to keep going. No one understood why, but I know the Polish context of our history and I remembered that in that city in 1946, residents of the city murdered dozens of Jews who returned from the war in a mass lynching. Today it is a beautiful city; I do not know if the residents know what happened there. I could not stop there”.