The man behind ‘The Testament’

Amichai Greenberg delves into his new film

A scene from the historical drama 'The Testament' (photo credit: DORIS GINTHOER-ERBEN)
A scene from the historical drama 'The Testament'
(photo credit: DORIS GINTHOER-ERBEN)
‘This trauma has its footsteps in my daily life,” says Amichai Greenberg, writer/ director of the unusual historical drama The Testament, which recently opened in theaters throughout Israel.
The Testament, which won the Israeli Feature Film Competition at the Haifa International Film Festival and premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last fall, tells the story of Yoel (Ori Pfeffer), a religiously observant, dedicated historical researcher, who has brought suit against a corporation to halt the development of a plot of land in Austria. This land was the site of a massacre during the final days of World War II, and Yoel demands that excavations must continue until the remains of those killed can be found and laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery. The fact that two witnesses to the massacre – one a survivor and the other one of the perpetrators – were murdered on their way to testify adds another layer of urgency.
But the court rules that unless Yoel and his associates can find these remains quickly, the development will go on as planned. In a race against time, Yoel redoubles his efforts, combing the testimony of survivors that he hopes will yield clues. In the course of his research, he discovers a startling fact: His own mother turns out not to be Jewish but a daughter of servants who was raised by Jews and came to love her adopted family and identify with them. This very inconvenient truth upends Yoel’s world.
The Testament is Greenberg’s first feature film. He has made television documentaries and dramas for Israeli channels, as well as commercials. But it was his work as researcher for the USC Shoah Foundation, which was founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 to collect and document the stories of Holocaust survivors, that was particularly influential when he was making The Testament.
“There were stories [from the USC Shoah Foundation] that found their way into the film,” he says.
But more than any of the stories he heard when working for that foundation, the film was informed by stories he did not hear. His father was a Holocaust survivor, who chose not to share his wartime experiences with his son.
“His silences were very difficult to decipher,” he says.
When Greenberg was a child, “You don’t have any words to describe it. You’re not aware that there’s a silence. But people are talking and not saying anything, you feel something is missing, you feel lost, but you don’t know how and why. As the son of a survivor, I’m very aware of how this history manifests in my life. Usually when we speak about history, we look outside, we look to the past. I feel the past is still alive.”
The director, who was raised in the US and Israel and is from a national religious background, like the film’s hero, was fascinated by the intersection between the historical and personal stories.
“There is this personal story about Yoel’s identity crisis... and the historical story that echoes his internal voyage, that is a metaphor for his inner struggle,” says Greenberg.
After he learns the truth about his mother, “It’s as if the rug was pulled from under his feet. He lost his core... His Jewish identity was very meaningful to him, and this revelation leads him to a very difficult place.”
For Greenberg, the questions of identity raised in the film reflect issues that are coming to the fore all over the world.
“This question of identity and who we are is rising now. You see it in Catalonia, in Brexit, in America. You have these extremes of very liberal and very nationalist,” says Greenberg. “The movie is really challenging myself and others to explore who we are, and it shows that it’s not so easy.”
One of the inspirations for the mother and her story was the main character of the novel Katerina by Aharon Appelfeld.
“The Jews are the only people she has. She’d rather die with them than be alone,” he says.
Greenberg is working on the screenplay for his next movie, which will tell the story of a father who takes his troubled son to the desert rather than placing him in a mental hospital, which he says will pay tribute to the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Shortly after this interview he was heading off to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where The Testament will be screened. It will also be shown at several Jewish film festivals.
Greenberg says he was especially gratified by the reactions the movie has gotten from young audiences.
“They tell me they usually don’t see historical movies, but that for them, this was really interesting and full of tension and suspense. If this movie will allow them to access this history, that’s great,” Greenberg says.