‘The thing about Holocaust movies,” says a friend of mine, “is that they can be as long as they want, and you can’t say anything.”
Thirty minutes into Bulgarian Rhapsody – a coming-of-age story of unrequited love set during the early years of the Holocaust – one begins to wonder, “Have we become desensitized to Holocaust drama?” “This is absolutely not a Holocaust movie,” says the film’s director Ivan Nitchev, speaking from the 18th floor of the Herods Hotel in Tel Aviv. He was here with the cast and crew for the Israeli premiere of the film on January 1.
“This is an attempt to reach a younger generation to remind them of certain dramatic and tragic moments during the Second World War. And we are not hiding that we are doing it with the sincere belief that what happened in the Second World War should never happen again,” he says.
The film is the third in a series by Nitchev that explores the Bulgarian Jewish community and the country’s role in deporting them to Nazi death camps. Today, when Bulgaria looks back on that part it played during the Holocaust, it is actually with a sense of pride.
They saved their Jewish community, 50,000 of them. It was, however, the areas outside official Bulgarian lines, still under their control, that were not exempt.
In allying with Nazi Germany, Bulgaria was given control of Macedonia, among other countries. It was the Jews from these areas that were sent to the Nazi death camps, 11,000 of them.
“These were the Jews that really went to the camps, and they [the Bulgarians] ignore it,” says Israeli producer Nisim Livi. “When they ask you about it, [they say], ‘But it’s not us; this isn’t us’ ... It has some truth, but they’re not talking about it, and the film is talking about it.”
The film is a collaborative effort between Livi and Nitchev; the former a Bulgarian Jew who immigrated with his family when he was an infant, and Nitchev, who ranks Bulgarian Rhapsody as his third film in a series exploring the Jewish community of Bulgaria during the period of World War II.
The movie is paced slowly, following the characters through everyday experiences of family fights, youthful shenanigans and the celebrations of milestones, such as a wedding.
Each character is no one person but a compilation of more than a dozen interviews that Livi and Nitchev conducted with Bulgarian Jews in Tel Aviv. In fact, one of the main situations was lifted right out of Livi’s life.
In the film, Mozi, the strict but fair patriarch, vows to never let his children associate with the family of his nemesis, Abraham.
Their feud stems from when they were in the hospital during the Balkan War. Mozi was paying off the physicians to keep him and Abraham in the hospital and away from the front lines, in fear that they might kill one of their Sephardi cousins. When Mozi ran out of money, he asked Abraham to pay, to which he said he had only enough to cover his share. In the film, the son and daughter of the two men, respectively, meet and fall in love. In real life, these were Livi’s parents and grandparents.
“I was three months old when I was supposed to go with my parents to the camps,” Nisim says, but instead they came to what was then Palestine.
While the characters are created from personal recollections of the Bulgarian Jewish community and are thus an important historical testament, the motivations of the characters fail to make an impact cinematically.
The film provides a snapshot of normal people living in an abnormal situation. It paints the Bulgarian people in a positive light as supporters of the Jewish community, with the righteous standing up for their friends, and the Jews standing up for themselves.
It also focuses on a very Bulgarian theme of unrequited love.
“Almost every Bulgarian, we say, carries a true love in his heart,” says Israeli actor Alex Ansky. “My mother used to say, ‘Every Bulgarian woman you see, she has a great love from when she was 14.’” At the heart of the film is artistic and introspective Moni and his love for free-spirited and intelligent Shelly. Things get complicated when his brute of a friend Giogio also develops feelings for Shelly but puts things more bluntly: “Give me 30 minutes with her, then you can have her for the rest of the night.”
While the Holocaust is present in the film, it never takes center stage. It mostly reveals itself in the harassment Moni receives or the facsimile Jewish stars that friends of the Jewish community don to show their support. Giogio’s father – a Bulgarian civil servant looking to get his comeuppance with the Nazis – is a pathetic, alcoholic womanizer.
The film was Bulgaria’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th annual Academy Awards but was not selected. As a dramatic story, it fails to draw audiences in; but as a snapshot of Bulgaria, its citizens and its Jewish community during this period, it is immensely important.
When asked if we are running out of time to document the stories of survival and life during the Holocaust, Nitchev responds with a resounding “Yes.”
‘Bulgarian Rhapsody’ opens this weekend at selected cinemas around the country.