Holocaust films? Pah!” says Jack Garfein, shaking his head. “They’re awful. They always show the horror, not the human element.”
If anyone is an authority, it is Garfein. Born in 1930 into a Zionist Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, he was sent to Auschwitz when he was 13 and then through the hell of 11 Nazi camps. His entire family perished; he narrowly escaped the clutches of Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele by lying about his age.
But Garfein also knows about entertainment. Six weeks after emerging from Bergen Belsen, weighing just 48 pounds, he crossed the Atlantic for a new life in America with a relative. He was one of the first child survivors to do so.
Despite knowing no English, within two years he was studying drama at Manhattan’s prestigious New School, the fees paid by the United Jewish Appeal, for whom he acted as something of a poster child. His teacher was Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio and mentor to Hollywood stars.
In 1953, less than a decade out of the camps and having already acted on Broadway, Garfein made his Broadway directorial debut with End as a Man, starring Ben Gazzara. The following years were a whirlwind; he worked and socialised with Hollywood legends, including Elia Kazan, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and producer Sam Spiegel, and married actress Carroll Baker.
He also produced two Arthur Miller plays — “I had a wonderful relationship with him,” he says. “We spent a lot of time talking about our divorces” — and directed two feature films, The Strange One and 1961’s Something Wild.
Given this, and how he peppers the conversation with references to Monroe, Billy Wilder and Samuel Beckett — “he was a very close friend, he didn’t like any of the Holocaust movies either,” he says — it might seem odd that Garfein is not better known.
But having clashed with Spiegel over how much screen time would be given to black cast members in The Strange One — the studio wanted to limit it to make a release in the southern states possible —- Garfein lost his studio contract. Something Wild, which broke new ground by including a rape scene and brief nudity, was made on a shoestring budget with little support from the producers.
With a reputation for being difficult and arrogant, he found industry doors closed, and turned instead to teaching, working in Budapest, London and Los Angeles. He was one of the key players in launching the Actors Studio West, the West Coast branch of the influential drama school which popularised method acting.
“It was a remarkable place. Kazan, who founded it, understood that actors needed a place where they didn’t have to impress or be accepted for external aspects like their looks, where they could experiment and where young actors could work with the most experienced.” Garfein founded theatres in New York and more recently, Le Studio Jack Garfein in Paris, where he directs and teaches. In 2010 he wrote a book on acting.
In 1987, he made The Journey Back, an autobiographical film in which he revisited his childhood home and went back to Auschwitz. It was not an easy trip, he says. “My father said to me in Auschwitz, no matter what they do to, you don’t cry. I can’t tell you how you survive a concentration camp, but I can tell you how you don’t survive one.”
Garfein’s philosophy, he says, can be summed up by his feelings about Fiddler on the Roof. “Because of that bloody musical, the Jews start saying ‘l’chaim’ and dance and sing around. When I say ‘l’chaim’ it means, ‘I’m not afraid, baby’.” He stands up, gesticulating wildly. “Life is cruel, so it’s not ‘yeah, l’chaim’. It means, ‘life, I take you on’.”
He found it just as difficult to contain his emotions when he watched Something Wild again last year, at a BFI London Film Festival screening. The film stars Baker as a lonely rape victim being rescued then held captive by her sadistic saviour.
“The moderator at the screening said he thought it was the greatest film of the Holocaust ever made, and I thought about it the next day and I realised — of course! This is my story.
“When I came to New York I couldn’t talk to anybody. Some people thought I was exaggerating, they didn’t want to face it. I was a normal kid but the moment they found out I was in the camps, people changed.
“When I saw the film again I realised how totally alone I was both with what I experienced, and in relationships afterward. This is what the girl goes through.”
Only now, after extensive therapy, does Garfein feel he is coming to accept the impact his experiences had on his relationships, including two broken marriages. “It’s such a challenge to create something real, not just to be a success or make a lot of money, but to really grasp the meaning of it all,” he says.
“I came back from London all shaken up, but then I had a class to teach. If I didn’t have work it would be terrible. Art has helped me to survive.”
So does art have a place in telling the story of the Holocaust, after all?
“They always show suffering, but never how you deal with it,” says Garfein. “They always have a train and people screaming. When we went to the camps, my mother combed my sister’s hair, she straightened up a sweater, because we were arriving at a place and she wanted us to look good.
“When you tell people a story about Auschwitz, it’s something outside of themselves, they are sympathetic but they don’t know what the real experience was.” But having watched Something Wild again, he has realised, “what I didn’t know for 50 years — that through some films, people can see what that kind of experience does to you”.
Despite having an array of projects on the go — a stage adaptation of Kafka in Paris, classes to teach — he would not say no if Hollywood came calling. “I’ve written a screenplay about my life and my mother during the war. She was amazing, really amazing,” he says.
“Someone like Rachel Weisz would be wonderful to play her. She’d win every award because it’s an amazing part.”