When people say their grandfather was at Auschwitz, they usually mean that he
was an inmate there. But the heroine of Barbara Albert’s latest film, The Dead
and the Living, has to come to terms with the fact that her beloved grandfather
was an SS officer there. Albert will be at the 14th Jerusalem Jewish Film
Festival, which runs through December 14 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, to
present her film, and the inevitable question this Austrian director will face
is whether the film has autobiographical elements.
The short answer is
yes, says Albert in a phone interview from Vienna a few days before the
“Like Sita [the heroine of the film, played by Anna Fischer] I
started to do research about my own family a few years ago,” Albert says. The
Berlin-based director, who is originally from Austria, began a journey that
mirrors Sita’s in the film, through several countries in Europe to find out the
truth. The result is a moving film about a confused young woman whose search for
her place in the world is complicated by what she learns about her
“In 2003, I found out that my grandfather had been at
Auschwitz as an SS officer. I definitely had feelings of guilt. I was trying to
feel responsible for what’s happening in the world and then I found this out,”
And, just like Sita in the film, she discovered an interview
with her grandfather that her uncle, author Dieter Schlesak (who has published
several works of fiction about the Holocaust, including The Druggist of
Auschwitz: A Documentary Novel) had done while doing research. She recreated
this interview closely in her film, and some of the most riveting moments in The
Dead and the Living are when actor Hanns Schuschnig, playing the grandfather,
talks about his feelings about what he did – and his lack of guilt.
knew that he had been in the SS, but no one talked about it. You just knew you
shouldn’t ask. So I knew there was something I had to find out after he was
dead,” she says, and her research led her to the interview footage and the
discovery that he was not some low-level bureaucrat, as she had preferred to
think, but that he had actually been an officer at Auschwitz.”
learned about her grandfather’s years working at Auschwitz while she was writing
the film and she knew she had to use it. “Auschwitz was at the core of
everything. It’s such a symbol. People said, ‘It’s too obvious.’ But
these are the facts.”
Many of the other facts in this film mirror her
family’s experience, including their experience as Siebenburger Saxons, a German
minority in Transylvania, many of whom served in the SS.
that while she doesn’t see it this way, her grandfather, like many Saxons, felt
that he was a victim himself in that he had been displaced from the region where
he grew up and where his family had lived for generations.
like victims. They felt had lost their homeland. They couldn’t say they
were guilty, that we did something wrong,” she says. “My grandfather would have
liked to go somewhere else to serve.”
Many of the SS guards were from the
German groups like the Saxons who had lived in other parts of Europe, she
“It was presented to them, that you have to suffer now for the
German ideal. You are the victims,” she says. It was very difficult for her to
hear “my beloved grandfather” acknowledging what he did but saying he did not
Learning this painful truth helped Albert, like Sita, find
her own identity.
“Sita has to know where she comes from in order to go
in a new direction,” she says.
It was difficult for her to find funding
for the film in Germany, where “they feel we’ve talked about this issue, we are
over it.” But the Austrian film funds, and other throughout Europe, were more
Albert, whose parents are biologists, had a success in 1999
with her film, Nordland, about rootless young people, at the Venice Film
Festival, and has been directing ever since.
She is excited that her film
will be shown in Israel.
“For me it’s important to show it in Israel and
talk to people there,” she says. She knows many Israelis living in Europe, and
cast Israeli actor Itay Turan in a supporting role as a photographer Sita meets
and has an affair with.
She hopes screening the film here will lead to
some interesting discussions.