‘My grandfather was a Nazi’

A guest at this week’s Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, director Barbara Albert speaks to the ‘Post’ about uncovering her family’s secret past.

Barbara Albert 370 (photo credit: thedeadandtheliving.com)
Barbara Albert 370
(photo credit: thedeadandtheliving.com)
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 festival.
“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 grandfather.
“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,” she says.
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.
“I 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.”
She 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.
She acknowledges 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.
“They felt 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 says.
“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 feel guilt.
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 responsive.
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.