Interview: Sir Bernard Zissman

The former Lord Mayor of Birmingham has a dream - to put history's most famous Zionist on the big screen

By Simon Round, August 25, 2011
Sir Bernard Zissman

Sir Bernard Zissman

Back in the 19th century, Theodor Herzl had a crazy dream - that one day the Jewish people would have their own homeland where they would be safe from antisemitism. Against all the odds, that dream became a reality.

Now, more than 100 years later, Sir Bernard Zissman, businessman, author and former Lord Mayor of Birmingham, has what some might think is a similarly crazy and unrealisable notion - to make the life of Herzl into a feature film. And as with Herzl, it looks like this project is also going to come to fruition. But unlike his hero, Zissman hopes it will happen in his lifetime.

This is an unpromising time to make a movie about the founder of modern Zionism, what with the current financial crisis and Israel's public relations difficulties, but Zissman, looking relaxed in a open-necked shirt over a tomato juice, is adamant that the project will be completed - in fact, he is hopeful that filming could start as soon as this autumn.

His obsession with Herzl goes back to his own days as a teenager in the Habonim youth movement. But his desire to make a movie is a more recent obsession - the result of a book he wrote about Herzl.

Zissman recalls: "My book was called Herzl's Journey. It was a kind of imagined conversation between the two of us. In the first half I go back in time to meet him in the Sacher Hotel in Vienna and I get to know him in his era and go on his journey with him. In the second half of the book he travels forward in time to my era and I show him the results of his vision. The state is founded, the desert is blooming, but the country is at war with its neighbours. The book was published by a Jerusalem publishing house and sold around the world - not quite John Grisham or
J K Rowling, but it did quite well."

Herzl at work in his study in Vienna."My grandchildren's generation don't know who he was," says Zissman

Herzl at work in his study in Vienna."My grandchildren's generation don't know who he was," says Zissman

It occurred to Zissman that there had never been a film made about the life of this visionary. He wondered whether it might be possible for him to pull it off himself. However, there was one problem. Zissman had never made a film and had never had any involvement in the movie business. He was a successful businessman with a notable career in local politics but did not have huge personal wealth to call on. This did not discourage him, however.

"Starting a new career at my age [he is in his 70s] is in itself a challenge. But the basic thing about the movie industry is it's the same as any other business. You first of all need to have a product, then you need the money to fund the product, then you need to market the product. If you make shirts or if you make tables, it's the same. The only difference is that in the film industry, people do a lot of work on spec. They take very little money, if at all, when they are developing it and instead they rely on making their money when the film is made."

The process is already well under way. In the 18 months since he started work, he has spoken to a number of senior film industry figures, including the producer, Lord Puttnam, raised a development budget of £100,000 and has producers, scriptwriters and casting directors on retainers. He also has a director - the Hungarian Gabor Herendi - and the hunt is on for a leading man. He says that Adrian Broudie, of The Pianist fame, loved the script but ultimately said no because he was reluctant to be typecast in Jewish roles. But Zissman is confident that he will find his star. "It won't be Tom Hanks or Colin Firth but we're looking for someone who is talented and on the way up," he says.

He is also optimistic about funding. The budget has been estimated at
$6 million. He has secured a subsidy of $2 million from the government in Hungary, where the film will be shot, which leaves $4 million to be raised from private investors.

"We're going to ask wealthy people, probably Jewish, who are supportive of the concept. When people say: 'I don't invest in films', I say to them: "It's an investment into the story of Zionism told in a way that is made for a wider audience and not just a Jewish one'. If we can't take $4 million worldwide, there's a problem somewhere, so investors should at least get their money back. Whether we make a big profit depends how good the movie is and what the critics say about it."

He emphasises that the film will not be overtly political. In fact, he sees it as something of a love story, not just about Herzl's passion for Zionism and the Jewish people, but also the painful choice he had to make between the two women in his life.

And he does not think that Israel's unpopularity will stop the film being made. "This is not about the Israel-Palestine conflict - that would have been far more difficult to make. We asked our American casting director whether there would be resistance among actors, and he said, absolutely not."

Zissman is certainly no stranger to getting things done. He presided over the family retail business for many years while he became prominent in local government with the Conservatives, culminating in his election as Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1990. He was also the head of an NHS Trust, and headed the team which developed the second city's International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall.

But why is he so determined to bring this particular project to fruition? "Because Israel came out of a vision of Herzl's and that should be marked. My grandchildren's generation don't know who he was. They think Israel was the result of the Holocaust; that it was some kind of consolation prize for the Jewish people. The Holocaust certainly hastened the process but the real reason why Israel is here now is Herzl."

He adds: "If people can understand how the dream of a Jewish national home came about and why, then that would be a very good thing. In a way, although on a much smaller scale, I have the same ambition as he did, although I'm not founding a country, I'm just trying to get a movie made."

Last updated: 11:54am, August 25 2011