Jewish producer sees his family history in Oscar-nominated Netflix film

“We know what followed in the decade in Germany,” Dreifuss said. “So we could bring that to the film in subtle ways.”

 DANIEL DREIFUSS holds up a photo of his grandfather, Max Dreifuss, in 1919. Max was sent to a concentration camp after the Nazis took power.  (photo credit: DANIEL DREIFUSS/JTA)
DANIEL DREIFUSS holds up a photo of his grandfather, Max Dreifuss, in 1919. Max was sent to a concentration camp after the Nazis took power.
(photo credit: DANIEL DREIFUSS/JTA)

The film, producer Daniel Dreifuss, has only one surviving photo of a distant relative: his grandfather’s cousin, who fought for Germany in World War I and died in combat two days before the war’s end.

He has a few more photos of his grandfather, who wore a German uniform in WWI only to be rounded up by the Nazis two decades later during Kristallnacht and thrown into a concentration camp. Even the Jews who had fought for their country were not safe from its campaign of race extermination.

Dreifuss, who was raised in Brazil after his surviving ancestors fled the war to Uruguay, held up these weathered black-and-white photos to his Zoom camera as he spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from his home in Los Angeles. One shows his grandfather’s cousin in his military uniform, the other shows his grandparents posing together between the wars.

“Twenty years later, your country that you just gave your health, your cousin and your family for sends you to a camp,” he said. “It’s a lot of trauma to have to go through in one lifetime.”

These family stories echoed through Dreifuss’ mind when he first read the script for a proposed modern take on All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic 1928 novel about the German army’s hellish experiences during World War I. Nearly a century later, author Erich Maria Remarque’s descriptions of trench warfare and of the utter lack of heroism, valor or patriotism felt by its soldier protagonists resonated with Dreifuss.

“I said, ‘I know these people,’” he recalled. “Not because they are some distant relatives that I’ve heard of but because I am the grandson of one of those kids who were in the film.”

Dreifuss’ parents met at a Jewish youth group in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. “My father was my mother’s madrich,” he recalled, using the Hebrew word for a youth group counselor. Later, after they were married, they moved to Israel partially to avoid Brazil’s military dictatorship and became left-wing political activists. They left Israel just before the Yom Kippur War and relocated to Scotland, where Dreifuss was born, before returning to Brazil to raise him.

This global upbringing is reflected in Dreifuss’ interest in international film. It took a decade for him to mount his remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, which was eventually set up with a German production company and released by Netflix this past fall amid another endless military conflict in Europe. No one, he said, wanted to fund a resolutely anti-war film that refused to glorify its combatants, a film that was “never a hero’s journey, not the story of someone who came and, you know, beat 1,000 people with their bare hands, triumphs and looks down from on top of a hill at the end with some sweeping score.”

BUT THAT journey has been validated by the film’s impressive Oscar total, which surprised industry observers. At the nomination ceremony last month, All Quiet on the Western Front received nine nods in total, the second most of any film this year, including for best picture, which the novel’s original 1930 Hollywood adaptation, directed by Jewish filmmaker Lewis Milestone, won. This year’s Academy Awards will be held on March 12.

When he was first presented with an early draft of the new All Quiet on the Western Front script, in 2013, Dreifuss was coming off of the success of another international historical film he had produced. No, a 1980s-set Chilean political drama, starred Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad executive tasked with convincing his country to vote for the dictator Augusto Pinochet out of office. The film netted Chile’s first-ever Oscar nomination for an international feature film, although Dreifuss himself is not Chilean.

German filmmakers made a Jewish masterpiece

German filmmaker Edward Berger, who also helmed several episodes of the espionage miniseries Deutschland 83, stepped into the director’s chair and he also has a co-writing credit. German star Daniel Bruhl, who has played many historical villains to the Jewish people in films ranging from 7 Days in Entebbe to The Zookeeper’s Wife, took a key supporting role as the lead negotiator for the armistice agreements – the sole figure in the movie trying to find a peaceful resolution for his country. The historical figure Bruhl portrays, Matthias Erzberger, was vilified as a traitor by the German right and assassinated in 1921 by antisemitic nationalist radicals who were the precursors to the Nazis.

Though there are no explicitly Jewish characters in the film, Dreifuss believes it still speaks to the fate that would soon await Europe’s Jews.

“We know what followed in the decade in Germany,” he said. “So we could bring that to the film in subtle ways.”

He pointed to the armistice plotline that foreshadows how the Treaty of Versailles left Germany in a deeply disadvantaged position, creating an opportunity for Hitler’s brand of national populism. There are also scenes in which thoughtless German generals, driven by nationalistic fervor and wounded pride, send entire squadrons to their deaths mere minutes before the armistice is set to take effect.

In one sequence, the film’s lead, soldier Paul (Felix Kammerer), steals a goose from a French farming family of non-combatants and says: “It’s a hatred of the other, of not understanding, of being raised to have an enemy.”

Dreifuss is dipping into a different chapter of world Jewish history with his next project: a Showtime miniseries produced with the co-creators of the Israeli Netflix series Fauda that explores CIA operations in the Middle East and is partially set during the Lebanon War in which Israel had a heavy and oft-criticized military presence. The series will air this summer.

He has also been pitched a host of WWI and WWII-related projects in the wake of the success of All Quiet on the Western Front. But, he joked, “I would love for people to not only think of me as the war guy or as the dictator guy.” (JTA)