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In a twist on decades of big-screen tradition, the Holocaust survivors in the new documentary Four Seasons Lodge aren't depicted as saints or heroes.
Instead, the old men and women spending their summer at a vacation colony in the Catskills cook and clean, play cards and bicker. They are, in other words, normal people - with the proviso that all endured one of the worst traumas in history.
Inspired by a 2005 New York Times article, Four Seasons Lodge catches up with its elderly protagonists the following summer, as the dwindling group faces the possible sale and closure of the vacation village of the documentary's title. The parallels between the colony's fate and their own approaching mortality are not lost on the residents - nor on the film's rookie director, Andrew Jacobs, author of the original Times piece.
"There was a sense of urgency about it," Jacobs says of the decision to put together his first film. "It felt so fleeting, like I had to do something. I thought of writing a book, but a film seemed like the only medium that would do justice to them and what they built."
WHAT THEY built, beyond the lodge's physical dimensions, is a close-knit community of survivors - men and women who made it through the death camps in their youth and came to the United States alone, often as the sole survivors from their hometowns. Occasionally injecting glimpses of their younger years through black-and-white photos and grainy home movies, Four Seasons Lodge documents them deep into their retirement, mostly from blue-collar jobs and years of scrimping and saving. Though less than luxurious, the vacation bungalows attest to their success in America - as do the manicured fingernails and jewelry on many of the women.
Haunted in various ways by their shared history, the vacationers' bond is also strengthened by the challenges of old age, with the film following one resident through medical treatment, and capturing the pain of another as his wife fades into Alzheimer's.
Poignant without growing maudlin, the movie also showcases the pleasures the group still enjoys, whether playing mahjong and dancing in the dining hall, or recalling old memories at the swimming pool. Taking a cue from the survivors themselves, the film is content simply for viewers to be aware of their back story, without dwelling on the past or belaboring the valor of those who got through it.
"I like to think it's different," Jacobs says of his approach to the survivors. "I was not interested in making your classic Holocaust documentary with a talking head discussing the train to Auschwitz. I recognize that that's very valuable and I think those films are extremely important, but these people had lives after 1945 and I was equally interested in what happened after the war. I wanted the focus to be on their lives here, the lives they created in this country and the joy in their daily lives - talking and being with friends, making a community."
Now a Times correspondent in Beijing, Jacobs produced the documentary with a team of three cameramen, ensuring new footage was collected even when he couldn't personally be present at the lodge.
"I still had a day job," he says of the shoot, which mostly took place in the summer of 2006. "I took lots of vacation days, going up for four- and five-day weekends."
The elderly vacationers, already familiar with Jacobs as "the newspaper guy," embraced the production, treating the 40-something director and his team as "some kids with a movie camera."
"I think they liked the attention," he recalls, "but I think more deeply they recognized they had these lives that had been unexplored and unrecorded. They appreciated that they had someone interested in what they had to say."
THEIR STORY has proven a draw among filmgoers as well: originally slated for a one-week run in New York City, Four Seasons Lodge will now show at the West Village's Quad Cinema into next month, with bookings already lined up in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami. Screenings in other cities are also under discussion and Jacobs is looking for a distributor in Israel.
In New York, at least, the movie creates a unique intimacy in the theater. "It's Murray!" one older viewer blurted out during a recent show.
Jacobs says cast members who haven't already viewed the film are likely to see it in the coming days, making Four Seasons Lodge the rare movie that theatergoers can see while sitting next to the stars.
For Jacobs, who whittled down 250 hours of footage to make the 97-minute film, the survivors have become "an extended family."
"I'm constantly in touch," he says. "I'm in frequent phone contact with about 10 of them," despite now being based in China.
As they learn the fate of the lodge and its residents, filmgoers won't have a hard time seeing why.