Wednesday, Oct 1, 2003Artur Brauner arrived in Berlin in 1946 to make a movie about the Jewish experience of World War II. The Polish-born Jew wanted to tell his story, and the story of those he encountered during the war years he spent on the run from the Nazis. Nearly 60 years later, he is still telling that story and the latest chapter is his most personal tale yet. Babi Yar is an account of the massacre of 33,771 Jews 12 of them members of Brauner's own family by the SS near Kiev in September, 1941. The film's central tale, of a Ukrainian housewife who turns her Jewish neighbors in to the Nazis, is based in part on letters from his relatives. "I have carried this film in me for 50 years," says the 85-year-old producer, as he fights back tears. "Now, I can finally sleep peacefully some nights. It is as if I have buried someone. "
Brauner has been burying his ghosts since his first Holocaust film, 1948's Morituri. It was a box-office dud: Germans were not yet ready to confront the horrors committed in the war. Audiences booed and hissed. After ex-Nazis vandalized a cinema in Hamburg, others became too afraid to screen the film. Brauner was left nearly bankrupt.
His financial ruin provided the impetus that eventually made him Germany's most successful producer. "In order to pay off my debts I had to make normal feature films," he says. At first, he produced mostly escapist fare comedies, the hugely popular Karl May "westerns" and the occasional serious drama. He also brought back exiled German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Rolf Thiele. He built his Central Cinema Company in a former Nazi munitions and poison-gas factory. "Out of the poison-gas factory I wanted to make a dream factory," he recalls.
In time, the profits from his "normal" films allowed Brauner to return to his original mission of giving voice to the victims of the Nazis. He produced 20 movies about the Holocaust, virtually defining the genre that went onto yield such award-winning Hollywood films as Schindler's List and The Pianist. (The closest Brauner himself came to an Oscar was in 1992, when his Europa, Europa, the story of a Jewish boy who survived the war disguised as a Nazi, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.) Now he says his mission is nearly accomplished: he hopes to make one more Holocaust film.
But if Babi Yar is any indicator, Brauner's Holocaust saga may end the way it began, with failure at the box office. Since its July 3 release, Babi Yar has attracted an audience of less than 8,000. Brauner complains that "the mentality of the German public has not changed since Morituri." But there may be a more mundane explanation. Critics have described the film as wooden, formulaic and out-of-date. It certainly feels old-fashioned. Filmed in black and white and interwoven with newsreel footage, it tries to emulate Italian neorealism of the early 1950s. Brauner's screenplay, directed by American Jeff Kanew, bears down on the audience with the subtlety of a freight train: the characters are stereotypical goodies and baddies, and the in-your-face violence lacks Hollywood style and refinement. Brauner defends the assault on the viewer's imagination: "No games, no effects, nothing to soften the blow. That's how people died chased by the dogs, beaten by Ukrainian mobs, gunned down by the SS." But the film fails to provide the distance necessary to make the events accessible to viewers. "The tragedy of this method is that Babi Yar will never reach the broad audience it attempts to grip and shock," predicts the Frankfurter Rundschau. (Brauner hasn't yet sold the film to distributors outside Germany.)
Still, the film does at times have great poignancy. Leading up to the massacre at Babi Yar, a ravine in the woods outside Kiev, it tells the story of two housewives, Lena and Natalya, who have been friends for 20 years. When the Nazis arrive, Lena denounces Natalya in the hope of grabbing the Jewish woman's house. There are also moments of gut-wrenching intensity. After they have gunned down thousands of Jews, SS soldiers joke, smoke cigarettes, and take snapshots. One soldier, devastated by what he has done, staggers between the machine guns, puts a pistol in his mouth and kills himself. Moments like those, at once heart-breaking and nauseating, make Babi Yar a worthy chapter in Artur Brauner' s Holocaust cycle.