Directing History

At 29 years old, Amir Bar-Lev shows an appreciation for the ambiguities of human psychology and experience that would defeat far more seasoned minds than his -- which may come from hanging out with men 50 years his senior. Bar-Lev met Jan Wiener while studying film in Prague as part of an exchange program from Brown University, where Bar-Lev was majoring in the very Brownian combination of film and comparative mysticism. The two walked and drank their way around the city, Bar-Lev recalls fondly, ”getting the tour of all the places where Jan has gotten laid.“ When Bar-Lev decided to make a film retracing Jan‘s escape route, he invited Arnost Lustig, who, like Jan, taught in the program, to join the journey as an interlocutor to conduct the interviews. Bar-Lev thought the playful friction between the two old friends would be ”dynamic and fun.“

When the bickering turned serious enough to threaten the friendship itself, says Bar-Lev, ”We had to switch horses in midstream and realize this wasn’t a disaster that had befallen our production. That though it made things terribly hard, we should run with it.“ That takes nerve, and a willingness to step back from the ”noble victimology“ that has impoverished a flowering Holocaust film industry. ”One of the things one learns from taking this film around and having discussions afterward is that the word victim is superloaded,“ Bar-Lev says. In the Q&A period after some screenings, several audience members were outraged when he told them that he was attracted to Jan‘s and Arnost’s stories because they never defined themselves as victims.

”People would say, ‘Well, how can you say they’re not victims, they‘ve lost their families, they have emotional scars?’“ Bar-Lev, who feels alienated from much contemporary discussion of the Holocaust in the victim vein, was intrigued by the way the two men defined their experiences as the central drama of their lives. ”I remember Jan telling me that those years were the peak of his life, and Arnost telling me that if he hadn‘t had to pay for it with all the deaths, he would do it all over again. He said it was the greatest school for life that he could ever imagine.“

Though it’s not unusual to hear such commentary from former spies, soldiers and others who have worked at the epicenter of war, one doesn‘t often hear it from Holocaust survivors. Still, Fighter suggests that Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig suffered terrible losses, not the least of which is their friendship. As Fighter ends, production of the film has ground to a halt, and we take leave of Jan and Arnost on an Italian beach, wordlessly trying to patch things up over a game of checkers. Today, says Bar-Lev, the two men can and do deal with each other, but their closeness has gone. Even after communication has broken down, though, Arnost empathizes with Jan: ”He’s a man trying to tell his own story -- and it exhausts him,“ he says sadly. Shortly after the film‘s final screening at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Wiener, who at 77 has the buffed physique of a man 20 years his junior, suffered two serious strokes in quick succession. ”Jan said to us, ’Don‘t let Arnost visit me in the hospital,’“ says Bar-Lev. ”‘It will only finish me off.’

“Arnost sent a note with flowers and two beautiful women. The note said, ‘Don’t do this to me. With you gone, who else will I anger so easily? I kiss your ass, because that‘s the only part of your body I’m worthy of kissing.‘ Jan said, ’Let him come.‘ And he came. Two months later, Jan made a miraculous recovery.” --E.T.