New Uri Barbash Film Sets a Love Triangle in Holocaust-era Poland

The making of 'Spring 1941,' which premiered at the Haifa Film Festival, proved to be a harrowing experience.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Uri Barbash is used to the critics' lashings. The director whose 1984 film, "Me'Ahorei Hasoragim" ("Beyond the Walls"), accorded Israel a rare Oscar nomination, received a number of pats on the back but also a great deal of fire from Israeli critics. "I still haven't refined my defense mechanisms," he says openly, in anticipation of the next wave of criticism expected to wash over the press when his new film, "Aviv 41" ("Spring 1941") hits theaters. "True I've had my fill of battles and I'm scarred, but I won't act naive and pretend that what they say about my new film in the press and among the public is not important to me."

This time, however, it will be particularly difficult for Barbash to deal with the negative criticism, he admited in an interview two weeks ago. "In this movie, my sensitivity is greatly heightened because of the subject, because of the effort invested in it, because in so many more ways it was made with my blood. I wouldn't recommend anyone going head to head with me over this," he says.

Meanwhile, things have gotten complicated. The premiere of "Spring 1941" was supposed to take place during the Haifa Film Festival, which ended this week. A distinguished group of VIPs attended the premiere, including British actors featured in the film, among them Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love"), and members of the Polish team who participated in the Barbash production. Barbash planned an especially festive launch week. "I won't allow anyone to spoil this splash," he said.

In the end, however, things did indeed go wrong. Not even one journalist showed up to the press conference last Thursday, a day after the film premiere. The festive atmosphere disappeared, and the parties involved were humiliated. Barbash was furious, and the press conference was canceled. All that remains now is to wait for the response of the critics and moviegoers to the film, which will start showing in theaters next Thursday.

Realizing an age-old dream

"Spring 1941" tells the story of a Jewish family (a doctor, his cellist wife and their young daughter) that finds refuge from the Nazis at a Polish woman's farm. The subsequent love triangle between the young adults turns the already difficult situation into an even more complicated one. The film is related from the point of view of the Jewish woman who returns 30 years later to visit the house where she hid. The plot is based on stories by Ida Fink and the script was written by playwright Motti Lerner who previously collaborated with Barbash on the TV series "The Kastner Trial" (1994) and "Kav 300" ("Line 300") in 1997. In order to carry out the project, Uri Barbash was obliged to briefly abandon his long partnership with his younger brother, Benny Barbash, who usually scripts his directing projects. "At first, I suggested it to him. It was important for me to work with him, but he doesn't want to deal with material that relates to the Holocaust; he doesn't feel that he is up to it as a writer," he says. But his partnership with his brother is intact, he says. "Even if I have wandered in foreign pastures from time to time," he says, "I am married to Benny. And in that sense, there is always a feeling of discomfort, of betrayal, since he is not with me on this journey. It is not at Motti's expense, since he is a perfect partner, but I always knew that Benny and I would go back to working together because we feel right together."

"Spring 1941" is the fulfillment of an old dream for Barbash. "Over the years, since I remember myself as an adult, everything connected to the Holocaust is dominant in my life. True, I'm not a second-generation survivor - my mother and father came to this country before the war and met here - but all my life I have felt like a first-generation Holocaust survivor," he says in an interview in his north Tel Aviv home. "Almost any material I read on that period, agitates me and throws me off-balance, more than any other material. I feel as if I'm meeting my most personal and most intimate biography. For many years, that was my world."

In order to underscore his words, he points to a small black and white photograph hanging in a black frame on his living room wall. "Do you see that beautiful young woman there? That is Tama Schneiderman. She was a fighter in the Bialystok Ghetto. Her code name was Wenda and she used to transfer information, smuggle people and arms, but in the end she was caught and they sent her to Treblinka. I didn't know her personally but as I research material [for the film], her diaries touched me very much, and when one of my daughters was born, I called her Tama after her."

For many years, Barbash tried to sell ideas he had for films about the Holocaust but says he was met with a widespread lack of interest. "It is terribly difficult to convince investors, producers and even [film] funds to tell a story that took place during the Holocaust," he says. His only success in that respect was the documentary series on Kastner that he created with Lerner for Channel 1. "That series is the most important thing that I have created," he says. "There I felt that I was touching on the material that changed my life."

It took Barbash nearly eight years to fully create "Spring 1941." To his great surprise, the project welcomed an unexpected partner - the Polish Film Institute, which decided to invest one million dollars in the film and turned it into the first Israeli-Polish co-production ever. The film was produced with a total budget of $2.5 million and the shooting took place last year in Poland.

'The son of the murderer'

"We had to take British actors and what I call 'convert them to Judaism' - to connect them with the sense of the Jewish fate," he relates. "It began with nine hours of watching Lantzman's 'Holocaust,' which is what I call shock treatment. The actress Claire Higgins underwent a psychological upheaval; she really crashed emotionally, and a week before the shooting, it wasn't clear if we would be able to start. I, too, after I came back from Poland, crashed emotionally for two months; I wasn't functioning and lay in bed, sick. This has never happened to me. People always say I'm tough. I went to the doctor, and I even went to the emergency room one night, but nothing. They told me that physically there was absolutely nothing wrong. Only then, very slowly, did I begin to understand that something had happened, that I'm not made of the stuff I thought I was."

The complex and loaded relations between Jews and Poles came to a head time and again during the production as well. It began with the Polish production assistant's constant hair-raising cry, "Aktsia!" which is the Polish equivalent of "Action!" It continued with Barbash's refusal to stop and eat in Kielce (the city where dozens of Jews were killed by Poles in a pogrom in 1946). And it ended in a serious argument with the representatives of the Polish TV channel that was supposed to invest in the film.

They demanded to change a part of the film in which Polish neighbors tell the returning Jewish woman that the child who was born as a result of the romance between the father and the farm woman who hid them, was killed because he was a Jew. The Israeli and Polish director and producers refused to make the change, and the channel revoked its investment in the film.

Barbash says that making this movie was the most difficult experience of his life - "physically, mentally, emotionally, and historically. We were there for seven months, a handful of Israelis - me, the director's assistant, the producers, and Motti who came only from time to time to visit - with a group of Polish producers and English actors. None of them was connected to our fate nor were familiar with our history, but all of us came together on Polish soil to tell the story of a Jewish family that was trying to survive. I couldn't help feeling that this was poetic justice, historic justice."

Barbash says he doesn't know why the Holocaust has played such an important role in his life, but if he looks into his past, he can spot a point in his childhood that holds a clue. His father worked for many years in the Mossad and lived with his wife and children in South America. When Barbash was 16, his father announced to him that he must leave once again for a mission in that part of the world. This time, Barbash, the eldest son, said he would not join the family but would remain alone in Tel Aviv.

"I didn't want to go. I was a member of the Shomer Hatzair [youth movement] then and I studied at the Tichon Hadash high school, and it suited me to be here, so I stayed here alone," Barbash says. "And then one day, when I was finishing high school, I opened the newspaper in the morning and read that the Interpol was looking for a man by the name of Menahem Barbash who was accused of murdering ... [a Latvian who collaborated with the Nazis] the previous week in Uruguay. The report said that the Foreign Ministry did not know anyone of that name, had never heard of him, didn't know what they wanted of him, and a whole fuss was kicked up," he says.

"So my father had been 'burned' - and I understood what he did. I didn't know whom to turn to, but I knew Meir Amit, who was a friend of my father's, and I knew he was someone important in the Mossad, so I called him. They calmed me down and said there was nothing to worry about. After that, everyone called me, in jest, 'the son of the murderer,'" he recalls, smiling. But the urge for revenge seeped into him nonetheless.

"Some of my dominant feelings are anger and a desire for revenge," he says. "I think that we did not take revenge sufficiently on the German people and their collaborators, and that is terrible in my opinion ... I think that in this case taking revenge is the most moral thing that we could do."

"Spring 1941," which was filmed in Poland, is apparently one approach to revenge. But this is only the first in a three-part series. The second film, which has already been written, will focus on a Kapo who survives the Holocaust and tries to rebuild his life; the third part will be based on the life of Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto. Meanwhile Barbash continues to make TV movies. "Ha'emet Ha'eroma" ("The Naked Truth"), a psychological thriller, is due to be broadcast on Channel 10. It marks a return to a natural state of affairs for Barbash, as he once again joins forces with his brother, Benny.



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