Life & Culture

A honeymoon trip to the past

Elise Otzenberger — the actor turned writer-director — speaks to Stephen Applebaum about her film, which will open this year's Jewish Film Festival


I really wanted to become a director. It was really important for me,” says Elise Otzenberger, on the phone from her parents’ house, somewhere in the French countryside.

She started out in front of the camera but when “the acting job” became more difficult to sustain after she became pregnant with her first child — she now has three, the youngest just five months old — she increasingly made writing her focus. “But I always had it in mind that the writing was a way to direct, one day.”

That day eventually came and, next week, her delightful, deeply felt and funny writing-directing debut, My Polish Honeymoon, provides the Opening Gala film for the UK Jewish Film Festival.

If the film feels personal, that’s because Otzenberger (pictured right) uses her own life as raw material. “It’s the way I like to work,” she says. “Fiction is a big part of my work, of course, but the beginning is very often some stories from my life. So I had it in mind that I needed to find a really personal story to become my first movie.”

The details of what that might be began to fall into place when Otzenberger and David Jackson, her then husband-to-be, received an invitation to a ceremony in Zgierz, Poland, where the latter’s grandfather (who changed his name from Jakubowitz to Jackson upon settling in Scotland) had come from, to commemorate the town’s Jews murdered in the Holocaust. They accepted without hesitation.

“When I met my husband, I very quickly realised that we were both very obsessed with our family histories, so it was really neurotic for him and for me,” says Otzenberger, recalling how they’d already been trawling the internet for information when the invitation arrived.

By the time the date of the ceremony came around, the couple — who had a six-month-old son — had been married for three weeks. The mix of emotions surrounding their personal circumstances and the nature of the trip made the timing seem “tragical but also very funny” — a balancing act the film performs perfectly.

When they returned home, Otzenberger wrote up her experiences, but wasn’t sure whether to use them in a novel or an article, or in some other form.

“The movie process was not in my mind at the very beginning,” she says. “Then, three years ago, after my second son was born, it became so evident that it was the story I had to tell.”

In the film, Anna (Judith Chemla) and Adam (Arthur Igual) leave their son (played by Chemla’s real-life six-month-old daughter) with Anna’s parents, and head off through Poland to Zgierz.

The trip is an opportunity for them to be alone for the first time since getting married, while Anna also sees it as a chance to discover more about her Polish maternal grandmother, whose life before settling in France is a mystery to her, and a cause of friction between her and her mother. Like many who lived through that period, she didn’t talk about the life she had left behind.

It was similar in Otzenberger’s family. Although she was immersed in the Holocaust growing up — her father exposed her to Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah when she was eight or nine, and her parents’ library in the house where she is staying contains “thousands of books” on the subject — they only ever talked about it in general terms.

“When you asked my dad and my mum — and my grandmother, of course — for some details about our own family, the silence was right away. Even today, when I ask my dad about my grandmother on his side — she was from Romania — he doesn’t know a lot but he refuses to tell me. Even now, after the movie, it’s still very, very complicated.”

Her maternal grandmother moved to France as a child and lived out the war in hiding. “Luckily for her she was protected,” says Otzenberger. The picture of Poland that she gave the film-maker was like a “fairy tale.

“She was a bit crazy because she was very old, and even though she’d escaped from Poland when she was three, she told me it was fantastic there. She said there’s beautiful mountains, beautiful porcelain — really strange stuff.” And it is this Poland, before the Holocaust and its horrors, that Anna is optimistically seeking when she goes looking for the Jewish quarter in Krakow, because, says Otzenberger, “she really wants to connect with a beautiful past that was a very, very long time ago.”

What she finds, however, is what Adam describes with disgust as a “Disneyland for the Holocaust”. Watching the film, it feels like a place informed by Jew-hatred and guilt. What did being there feel like?

“Really strange,” says Otzenberger. “You’re happy that they’ve tried to make something for the memory, in a strange way. But it is like Disneyland. It’s really fake. And you can’t escape the fact that it’s making a lot of money for the people there.”

This commercialisation of the Holocaust, and the knowledge that 90 per cent of Polish Jews were slaughtered, leaves an especially bad taste when the travellers visit a market where stalls sell figurines of hook-nosed Orthodox Jews clutching sacks of money, or, in the case of one trader, displays Iron Crosses and Nazi lapel badges alongside cloth yellow stars, statuettes and Judaica.

“When we asked the guy if it was possible to shoot the table with all the stuff, of course he said no. So, we took some pictures and we rebuilt it the exact same way. What you see in the movie is the exact reality we saw in the market.”

Otzenberger is loath to sound like Anna’s mother, who calls Poles “genetically antisemitic”, or her own, who would phone her every day during filming to ask when she was coming home. But, she says, there were moments that deeply shocked her.

She relates a story about going to a rural restaurant with her Polish crew while scouting locations, and seeing “a little painting of an old Jew” on the rear wall. Bizarrely, it was upside down.

“I said to my Polish friend, ‘That’s strange. The lady doesn’t care.’ And she told me, ‘No, no, no, no. That’s on purpose. It’s a tradition in restaurants and in shops. You put little framed pictures of Jewish people upside down and this way the money in their pockets will fall in the cash machine.’ I was shocked. It’s like in Borat! ”

It was tough sometimes, Otzenberger admits, because the past was never far away. When she walked through woods, looking for places to film, “I couldn’t escape in my mind that, in those woods, people were dead.

“Cemeteries and ashes are everywhere, really, in Poland. . . and I know it’s stupid,” she says, “but when I bought apples or stuff like that there, I always had ashes and ghosts in my mind.”

Anna and Adam visit the same places as Otzenberger and her husband, except for one location: Auschwitz. She wrestled with the ethics of putting fictional characters in the real death camp, and ultimately decided to “change, a little bit, our history”.

Likewise, she knew when she wrote the part of a survivor who talks about her experiences to schoolchildren in a beautiful cemetery, whose aged authenticity stands in contrast to “all that fake neighbourhood with fake antiques”, that she had to cast a real witness. She thus contacted the The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah which introduced her to Evelyn Askolovitch.

“It was really smart because Evelyn was in Bergen-Belsen when she was a kid — she was six years old — and now she’s eighty-something and still in really good shape. She does a lot of work with kids, like she’s doing in the movie, in Paris, so she was the perfect person to do that scene.”

In the film, she informs the children that, when people tell them the camps didn’t exist, they can say they’ve met a real survivor.

The rise of Holocaust denial is something that troubles Otzenberger, and for her it was “really important to do the movie before all the witnesses are gone.”

When she’s being positive, she hopes that people will find new ways of talking about and reflecting on the Holocaust.

“But I am very afraid, because every day I hear stories about people in France who can’t teach the Holocaust in school because small kids in the room said: ‘We don’t want to hear about that story.’ Every day you have these kinds of stories. So it’s really frightening.”

Turning a blind eye to the horrors of the past risks repeating them. In France, as elsewhere, antisemitism is rising, but so are attacks on Muslims and refugees, notes Otzenberger.

“We have to be aware and strong, and we have to speak to our children and make them good humans, and prepared to welcome all the people who are in the same position as our grandparents were at that time. It’s really important.”

I wonder, after everything, how she feels about Poland. Despite the heavy burden of history that weighed on her while she was there, and the shocking things she saw, it wasn’t an entirely grim experience. Far from it:

“I was happy there,” Otzenberger says brightly. “I worked with great people and I was happy to do my movie. The actors, the technicians, everyone was really happy on that set.

“So now Poland is the place where I have been so happy to make my first movie. It’s a strange, mixed feeling.”

My Polish Honeymoon will be shown as the Opening Gala of the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 6

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