Remembering Dostoyevsky in the Warsaw Ghetto
"Tomorrow we expect a difficult day of filming," said director Dror Zahavi in a telephone conversation last week, from the Polish town of Wroclaw (formerly Breslau). He sounded a bit tense prior to the filming of one of the main scenes in the film he is directing, a scene that reenacts the second Aktion, in January 1943, when several thousand Jews were sent from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp.
For this scene hundreds of extras have been dressed in coats and winter clothing, despite the Polish summer heat, and marched quickly between the mounds of snow imported to the site. Some of the extras are playing the Jewish residents of the ghetto, while others are German soldiers, prodding the Jews on their way to the Umschlagplatz (transfer point), the big square in the ghetto from where the trains left for Treblinka.
The cinematic reconstructions by Zahavi and his production crew are not devised only to describe the deportation from the ghetto, but are also for the filming of a personal scene.
During this scene, the film's hero whispers to his love, "Remember Dostoyevsky," as they are approaching the place where they are supposed to be sent to their deaths.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, 88, who became an influential literary critic and prominent German cultural figure, wrote of this dramatic moment, when he and his wife managed to escape the lines headed to the death camp, in his autobiography, "Mein Leben" (My Life). This work is now being made into a German made-for-television movie of the same name, under Zahavi's direction.
Reich-Ranicki was reminding his wife, Teofila, of the death sentence imposed on Dostoyevsky, who was about to be hung in 1849, but at the last moment was saved by a clemency edict from the czar.
The Reich-Ranickis knew about the Russian author's escape from death by reading Stefan Zweig's book, "The Tide of Fortune," and at that fortuitous moment, despite the grave risk of being shot to death by the German soldiers, the couple decided to attempt to flee for their lives.
They ran into a demolished house, hid in the cellar and survived the roundup. Some two weeks later they managed to flee the ghetto and found shelter with a Polish couple, who hid them until the end of World War II.
Zahavi believes that the scene of their escape from the Aktion shows the intensity of Reich-Ranicki's literary passion then and throughout his life.
"For him, literature was not only pleasure or entertainment, but rather an actual guide to life," says Zahavi. "Reich-Ranicki gleaned practical advice from the books he read in his youth, drawing everything he could from the fictional world that could assist him in the real world. The main difficulty in this film is portraying him in situations that depict the connection between the two - the real and literary worlds - and visually demonstrating his love of literature and how it motivated him."
Reich-Ranicki's autobiography was published in Germany in 1999, to rave reviews. It has been translated into 16 languages and sold 1.2 million copies worldwide (the Hebrew version, translated by Rachel Bar Haim, was published in 2004, by Dvir, but aroused little interest in Israel).
Reich-Ranicki was born in Poland and was sent to school in Germany. In October 1938, he was among the 18,000 Jews of Polish origin who were living in Germany and who were deported to Poland.
He lived in Warsaw, and like the rest of that city's Jews was forced into the ghetto after the city was conquered by the Nazis. A few of the more interesting chapters of his book describe ghetto life - the restrictions, the humiliations, the hunger and the disease; the cultural events held despite everything (his earliest reviews appeared in the ghetto's newspaper, in which he published a concert column); the tragic circumstances under which he met Teofila (he was called to help her moments after her father committed suicide); and his work as a translator for the Judenrat (he typed and translated as the German commanders dictated the mass deportation orders for ghetto residents in July 1942).
Reich-Ranicki's knowledge of German helped him after the war, too, when he was a Polish spy. Later, he began to work as a literary critic, and in 1958, after sobering from his support of the Communist regime, he fled to West Germany, where he gained acclaim as a critic.
In 1973, he was appointed editor of the literary pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a post he held for 15 years, and where he became, by his own definition, the "literary hangman of Germany."
He also became a well known television personality. From 1988 to 2001, he moderated the popular "Literary Quartet," a program on the ZDF network, on which he and his colleagues discussed new books, for better or for worse (Israeli author Zeruya Shalev owes much of her success in Germany to Reich-Ranicki, who was full of praise for her first two books, which were translated into German).
Another German critic, Joachim Kaiser, declared that Reich-Ranicki was "the most read, most viewed, most feared and most hated literary critic in Germany," while Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk grumbled in his book, "The Last Berliner," (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2004), that German literature "gave its top position to a sharp critic - a German-Polish Jew whose mother was murdered in Treblinka - allowing him to be the pope and setting him in a position of total influence, a position that exists in no other country in the world."
Behind the public mask
Zahavi explains that the biographical film does not deal with Reich-Ranicki's long years of influence in Germany, because those chapters in his life are well known to the German public. Due to the time constraints (the film will be 90 minutes long), the screenwriters decided to focus on three periods: Reich-Ranicki's adolescence in Berlin; his activities during the Warsaw Ghetto period; and his life in Poland from the end of the war until his escape to West Germany.
A 10-year-old will play Reich-Ranicki as a child, and his years as a youth and an adult will be played by German actor Matthias Schweigh?fer.
The film, which has a budget of 5.3 million euros (a huge sum in terms of the German filmmaking industry), is being produced jointly by German public television channel ARD and producer Katharina Trebitsch, who bought the film rights to the autobiography.
The plans for the film, which is being shot at several locations in Germany and Poland, include a special televised broadcast on April 19, 2009, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
"When Katharina Trebitsch contacted me a year ago with an offer to direct the film, I was very excited, because of Reich-Ranicki's complex character," says Zahavi.
"Like any person involved in German culture, I was familiar with Reich-Ranicki from the reviews he wrote, from his TV program and from his public appearances and like many others I, too, had the impression he was a stern, arrogant, not very personable man.
"Gradually, however, that image was completely shattered after I read his autobiography and mainly after I started to work on the film. I discovered the man behind the public mask, and as a private person he revealed himself as pleasant and very warm, open, and with a great sense of humor and criticism, including of himself."
At a press conference last month in Germany, Reich-Ranicki said that he is giving Zahavi full artistic freedom. Reich-Ranicki said he would be satisfied if the film would give the audience a general understanding of a world under destruction.
"When the film is completed," said Reich-Ranicki, "I will try to assess whether it is an interesting, quality work worth watching - not whether it successfully replicates each of the chapters in my book."
Zahavi, an Israeli director and son of Holocaust survivors, has been living in Berlin since 1991 and working mainly in Germany, where he has directed several television series. Recently he completed his first feature-length film, the Israeli film "Sof Shavua B'Tel Aviv" ("Weekend in Tel Aviv), whose main character is a Palestinian who comes to Tel Aviv on a suicide mission.
After the explosive belt strapped to his body fails to detonate, he spends the weekend in Tel Aviv, learning about the city and its residents. The film, which was screened last month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, will open in theaters here in September.
Zahavi was born in Tel Aviv in 1959 and studied filmmaking in Potsdam. The short film he directed in 1988, about the Israeli poet Alexander Penn, was an Oscar nominee for best foreign picture.