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By Naomi Pfefferman
Art & Entertainment MENSCHES

Hidden “Treasure”

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry in “Treasure.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

“What Jew goes to Poland as a tourist?” Holocaust survivor Edek Rothwax incredulously asks his daughter, Ruth, in Julia von Heinz’s tragicomic film, “Treasure.”

Ruth (played by Lena Dunham of “Girls” fame) has practically dragged her father (Stephen Fry) on a roots road trip to Poland, just after the fall of Communism in 1991. A rock ’n’ roll journalist, she’s newly divorced and mourning the death of her mother (also a survivor), as well as wrestling with the transgenerational trauma she has inherited from her father.

Because Edek has never spoken of his wartime experiences, Ruth seeks to replicate the pain of his past by hardly eating and self-harming. She needs to visit Poland and hear her father’s story in order to heal. But Edek thwarts her strictly planned agenda like a dog tugging at a leash.

“Pain travels through families until somebody is finally ready to address it and to feel it,” von Heinz, who is German, said during a Zoom interview. “In our story, Ruth … refuses to live her life in some way … I think she repeats the pain of her father because she feels it.”

Lena Dunham, Julia von Heinz and Stephen Fry on the set of the film “Treasure.” Photo by Julia Terjung

Ruth even tattoos her father’s Auschwitz number on her own arm. “She’s not tattooing herself to honor Edek; she does it to repeat his [angst],” the 47-year-old director said. “It’s not outspoken, it sort of stays inside, and that’s why she has this secret method to feel that pain. For her, it’s a relief.”

The comedy in the film comes from the frequent miscommunication and petty and not-so-petty spats between father and daughter, von Heinz said. At one point, Edek regards a postcard of Auschwitz that Ruth has purchased and dryly remarks that it would be nice for someone to receive it in the mail.

“Treasure” is inspired by a semi-autobiographical novel, “Too Many Men,” written by Australian author Lily Brett, who, like Ruth, is a member of the Second Generation (the children of Holocaust survivors). The author was born in the displaced persons camp, Feldang, in Bavaria; her parents, who were already married during the war, had been separated at the gates of Auschwitz.

After the war, Brett said, “It took my mother several months to find my father, and he wasn’t on any list that the Red Cross was posting. She went to Feldang to search for him. She had decided that if she couldn’t find my father, she would [commit] suicide.”

Growing up in Melbourne, “My mother talked about the country that produced Goethe and Schiller, and how on earth they could have done what they did,” Brett added. “My mom tried her best to make a good life … but everything had to be [clean]. I’d wake up, and my pajamas would be taken off me, and everything had to be washed, every day, all the time.” Brett remembers how her mother “had my hair chopped [o when] I was 12. I think she wasn’t doing it with any cruel intention at all. I think she was doing it unconsciously. I think her head was shaved, and she wanted mine to be …. I’ve always been really tall, so I went from having long hair to looking like a pinhead.”

Brett also recalled sitting next to her mother as she “cried and cried” about her murdered family.

Even though the author began her career as a rock journalist, like Ruth, by 1994, Brett had switched to writing novels that drew on her own Second Generation experiences.

Her father was not bitter about his wartime trauma, but rather “had a great sense of humor,” Brett said. “In a sense, it covered up his pain when he told his stories of being in Auschwitz.” Brett brought some of that humor to her 1999 novel, “Too Many Men,” and to her other novels as well. “My father taught me that humor could pierce the pain,” she said.

It was this humor that, in part, impressed von Heinz when her mother gave her a copy of Brett’s book for her 16th birthday. Since then, she has read about 10 more of Brett’s books.

In the late 1990s, Brett recalled, she wrote “Two Many Men” “barely stopping, and … all I ate for all the months that I wrote the book — it was cabbage, in this tiny little rundown cottage which stank of cabbage.”

Von Heinz was drawn to the novel, in part, due to her own family history. Her grandfather, whose mother was Jewish, survived the Holocaust but never spoke of it. “So, I think there was a lot of pain in the relationship between my grandfather and my mother, and a lot of not knowing what had happened to him. I can imagine now that she was resonating so strongly with the Ruth character, [who is] very similar in every one of Lily Brett’s books.” Von Heinz’s father died of a stroke in his late 70s, when she was 13.

It was the first time she had read about the Second Generation and transgenerational trauma. “Of course, in Germany, we learn so much about the Holocaust at school, which is so important, and we learned all the facts and all the horrible things,” she said. Reading “Too Many Men,” she said, was the first time she had seen the subject punctuated by humor. “That was something totally new to me in the 1990s.”

About 10 years ago, von Heinz was procrastinating on another project when she switched to Facebook and Brett’s prole popped up. She sent Brett a note stating that she is a German filmmaker and a fan. Were the rights to “Too Many Men” still available? Two days

later, Brett forwarded von Heinz her agent’s email address. The filmmaker intended the movie to be the third in her “Aftermath Trilogy,” which explores the effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations and includes her  films “Hannah’s Journey” (2013), as well as

“And Tomorrow the Entire World” (2020).

Author Lily Brett. Photo by Frida Sterenberg

According to Brett, she first met with von Heinz in Hamburg about a decade ago, and within 10 minutes knew she was the right filmmaker to adapt “Too Many Men.” “She’s very intense, very passionate and she’s compassionate and … so determined. ings matter to her, and I love people who have things that matter.”

Brett went on to become a “very important consultant” on the film, according to von Heinz. The author read every draft of the screenplay, which the filmmaker co-wrote with her husband, John Quester.

When it came time to cast her leading actors, von Heinz hoped to hire thespians who excelled at performing both comedy and drama. She was also looking for performers who had a personal connection to the material, and she knew she had found her Edek after seeing Fry on an episode of the genealogy series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Von Heinz noted that Fry’s mother’s Jewish family, which hailed from central Europe, also ended up in concentration camps. 

After Lena Dunham read the script, she quickly signed on as an actor and producer. “It’s very rare, to be frank, that I’m offered a role of substance unless I offer it to myself,” Dunham said in the film’s press notes. “So many women, no matter their shape or size or religious or ethnic background, feel like there is a dearth of roles that honor their truth and allow them to really be part of a story and not just an accessory or cliché. To be even considered for, much less offered, a role that was about so much — including my Jewishness, which is a massive part of my personal identity and understanding of the world but is rare to see as a real aspect of a lead’s story — it’s been such a gift.”

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in “Treasure.” Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

Did von Heinz have trepidation, as a German filmmaker, about making a Holocaust-themed movie in Poland? “One hundred percent,” she said. “In the beginning, I didn’t even think we could do it.

We can’t come as Germans and point with our fingers [at the Poles]. We knew if we didn’t find strong partners from Poland who make this film out of Poland, we won’t do it.”

Because the then-rightwing Polish regime wanted Poles depicted as “either victims or heroes,” von Heinz said, she received no funding from the Polish government. Thus, the filmmaker could only afford to shoot for eight days in Poland, including three days just outside the barbed wire fence and the main gate of Auschwitz.

After Hamas attacked Israelis on Oct. 7, von Heinz hurried to finish her film in time for a premiere at the Berlinale.

The movie, she pointed out, has universal themes: “This is a topic for everyone,” she said. “It doesn’t only have to do with Holocaust survivors. It’s for every family that went through a trauma or something secret or something sad — just to pass it to the next generation and to be open about it.”

“Treasure” will open in theaters on June 14. A movie tie-in to the book is
now available.

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