Life & Culture

(Stephen) Fry’s delight: his new film with Lena Dunham

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham on how they connected with their Jewishness while shooting a road movie in Poland


Father on: Stephen Fry in Treasure

So we’re waiting on Her Majesty, Guinevere,” chuckles Stephen Fry, the British actor-comedian-QI guru as he sits next to me in a Berlin hotel room. “Her Majesty” is, in this instance, Lena Dunham, the once-called “voice of a generation” who co-created the HBO show Girls. She sweeps in, looking suitably regal. “I was giving our director a hug because she looked so beautiful,” she chimes, referring to German filmmaker Julia von Heinz (2020’s And Tomorrow The Entire World) who stands in the doorway looking freshly hugged.

Together, this ever-so-slightly unlikely trio have collaborated on Treasure, a touching adaptation of Lily Brett’s book Too Many Men. A father-daughter story, one that stirs up memories of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, Fry plays Edek Rothwax, the son of factory owners in Łódź who joins his daughter Ruth (Dunham), a music journalist for Rolling Stone, on a restorative trip to his native Poland. The year is 1991, 12 months after Edek lost his wife, with whom he survived Birkenau-Auschwitz.

The shoot took both actors to the real concentration camp. “You can imagine the stories there,” says Fry, 66, who admits he was taken aback by its regimented nature. “There’s a very orderly, incredibly good condition railway siding and main platform and everything is as it happened,” he says. “Rudolf Höss and his team, when they built it, they built it with an absolute eye to efficiency and symmetry and order. So that was a shock, if you like.” He then turns to Dunham. “And you obviously had a lot of feelings too.”

Dunham first went to Poland in her early twenties, when she joined college friends on a trip that saw them drink vodka, chase boys and visit chocolate shops. “I remember saying, ‘Should I go and visit Auschwitz?’ And my mother and my grandmother, Dorothy, who was still living then, [said] ‘Why would any Jew ever want to go there? It’s not a tourist site! Just go and have a nice time with your friends, you don’t need to do that.’ And that was sort of the mentality, even though our family is Polish, with a significant amount of lives lost, during that time, and in that area.”

On the day, she didn’t realise how scared she was until she was just a few miles away from the camp. “It had been so embedded in me,” she says. “Why would you ever want a Jewish child to speak German? And this my grandmother’s attitude: why would a Jewish person ever want to go back to any of these places? There was absolutely no interest in exploring and understanding and re-engaging; the interest was in moving forward in assimilating and in being Americans first, and Jews second. And so as I approached it, I felt all of that resistance.”

Dunham, who grew up in New York, remains the only person in her family who has visited Auschwitz. “It was fascinating to me,” she says. “For them, that’s a place that you disavow.” The 38-year-old cites The Zone of Interest, and how it depicted the banality of evil. “We think that when humans turn [evil] that it’s going to be this...we’re gonna have these incredible signs, it’s going to be big and scary. And actually, it can happen in this incredibly incremental and orderly way. That was a very powerful realisation.”

While Treasure turns on the chemistry between Fry and Dunham, with the characters often amusingly bickering as they visit Edek’s old haunts, it takes on an ominous feel when the pair reach Auschwitz. Fry was conscious that they had to be as truthful as possible. “I think it’s fear that if you say something that is even slightly an exaggeration, or an underestimate, somebody who’s an enemy of the Jewish people and an enemy of history might point that out and say, ‘Ah, you see, that can’t be really true, can it?’ You have to be so truthful.”

Dunham is also credited as a producer on Treasure, a role she’s previously taken on the recent films she’s directed including 2022’s Sharp Stick and the charming medieval kids’ comedy Catherine Called Birdy. Together with her producing partner Michael P. Cohen, the Jewish president of their production company Good Thing Going, they immediately felt it was something that they wanted to be involved with. “That felt important,” she says, “something to do for the people who came after us and something we would be glad that we have in the world for our children.”

For Dunham, making Treasure was a way of connecting with her own Jewish background. “My grandmother passed away in 2016. She was 96. She was a Reform Jew, and it was a very, very big part of her life. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, because in our family, my grandfather thought girls didn’t need to do it. Just boys have to become men. Women don’t have to do it! We were excused. But I did go to Hebrew school. And I did have a very rich Jewish life. But it was something that was much more cultural for me than just classic familial obligation. And after she died, I spent time studying with a rabbi. I spent time reading, not just religious texts, but important writers like Yehuda Amichai, people who I hadn’t engaged with before.”

She calls making Treasure “like a real mission”, though she admits that it was one that her father – the painter Carroll Dunham – was rather “confounded” by. “I remember [him] saying, ‘You’re gonna go to Poland and Germany for three months, and deal with this heavy material and be cold!’ And I thought, ‘I don’t quite understand what there is there that I need to know. But I know that I do [need to know].’ And I did feel like I left very changed.”

For Fry, who decried the surge in antisemitism in Britain in his 2023 Christmas message to the nation, and who has played everyone from Lord Melchett in the Blackadder series to Oscar Wilde, Treasure was a chance to further flex his linguistic skills, with the character speaking a number of lines in Polish. “For anyone who’s looked at it who isn’t Polish, it looks like a difficult language,” he says. “It’s a Slavic language, but it doesn’t use the Slavic alphabet, it uses the Roman one, and has words that begin with ‘prz’. The Poles don’t have much time for Russia and the Orthodox religion, they are Catholic and Latin in their out outlook and so their language is also like that.”

The excitable Dunham interrupts, as she has likes to do. “I can brag about him,” she smiles. “From when we read the script for the first time, he was just starting his lessons. Within three months, he was speaking in a way where the Polish actors on set said that if they didn’t know that he was Stephen Fry – which they all did, because everybody wanted him to sign books – that they would have thought that he was a native Polish speaker.” The same happened, she says, when she posted a clip to her three million Instagram followers.

The conversation turns to religion, with Dunham calling Fry “one of our most famous atheists”. He’s typically thoughtful when it comes to the subject. “That strange thing about being Jewish… Edek is an atheist, the character in the book, and Lily Brett’s father, on who he was based, is an atheist, a much more militant one than I am really. I mean, I don’t have any objection to people believing in whatever they want to believe in. He just used to get really cross.”

Fry suggests that a horrifying experience such as surviving Auschwitz is always likely “to test religion and test your personality”. He also raises the question of survivor’s guilt. “Now, I don’t know if the phrase was ever used back in the 1940s. But to get through it and to be alive and then to remember the thousands of deaths you saw in these two years and let alone the ones you didn’t see but kind of smelt in the chimneys…I don’t know what that does to anybody, how you can be normal at all after such an experience.”

For her part, Dunham absolutely loves being Jewish. “To be Jewish, you don’t have to expressly have a relationship with God, it’s so deeply about community,” she says, before bringing up her grandmother again. “She didn’t say ‘When you die, you’re gonna go to heaven.’ She said, ‘When you die, you’re gonna be remembered in the hearts of the people that love you.’ And that focus on the now, that focus on being an active member of your community, on being a person people can rely on, on being a source of support, on always being able to recommend a doctor or a beautician or to show up with bagels in case of an emergency… that to me is being Jewish. And to me, it’s a very, very beautiful set of values that will define me for my whole life.” She breaks into peals of laughter. “Being a mensch!”

Treasure opens in cinemas on June 14.

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