Chris Weitz could have parlayed his success as the director of Twilight: New Moon into an even bigger film. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to make a small, intimate drama about a Mexican illegal immigrant called Carlos, who does back-breaking work to provide for his resentful teenage son, Luis, while trying to keep him out of the gangs in their poor East Los Angeles neighbourhood.
On paper, A Better Life looks like an odd fit for the man behind American Pie (with his brother, Paul), About a Boy and The Golden Compass. It is, though, Weitz's most personal film to date, reflecting not only his feelings as a father, but also as the descendent of a Mexican maternal grandmother whose beauty took her to stardom in Hollywood, and into a marriage with a Jewish film producer from Bohemia; and, less obviously, of assimilated Jews that fled Germany when Hitler came to power.
In the film, a crisis forces Luis to see for the first time what his father has given up and how he will never again experience his homeland and culture in the same way. This is essentially an “accelerated” version of something that Weitz went through. Except that in his case, it wasn't until after his father, John, “passed away [in 2002],” says the director, “that I really began to understand the aspects of history and his background that had haunted him.” Although he admits that he didn't actually think about his own dad as he was making the film, he says: “It's interesting putting the pieces together right now, talking about it.”
Born Hans Werner Weitz in Berlin in 1923, John was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer. Awarded the Iron Cross after being wounded on the Eastern Front in the First World War, Weitz says his grandfather had “every reason to believe that everything was going to be fine”, as Germany descended into economic and political chaos.
In 1933, however, he packed John off to be educated in England, at The Hall Preparatory School in Hampstead, and then St. Paul's School, and, finally, Oxford University. When war broke out, he was interned temporarily in a camp near Liverpool.
His parents accepted in the meantime that there was no future for them in Germany, and escaped to America as refugees. When their son joined them, “There was nothing,” Weitz sighs, the family business having been “sold for a pittance” in the rush to leave. “There is a country house in East Berlin that has been going through a legal process for 15 years, since the Wall came down. But it will probably never be returned to the family.”
At least America gave John a way to “strike back” at the Nazi regime. He joined the Army, and because he spoke fluent German and looked ayrian, he was recruited for undercover work by the OSS - the precursor to the CIA – and became one of the first people to enter Dachau after its liberation. “He told me a story that I will never forget,” says Weitz. “He talked about seeing the gas chambers and this little glass window so that the operator could see that the people had died, and described seeing taped under that glass window a picture of the gas chamber operator's daughter. That image, I think, affected the rest of his life.”
Though he went on to become a highly successful fashion designer and author in America, Weitz's father never forgot where he came from or what had happened. “The story of his later years was really the story of his trying to come to grips with with his German heritage,” says his son. “He did believe in Germany, he did believe in it as a country. He had dealings with German resistance members, and that, I think, saved the country for him in his mind.”
Nevertheless, he found it difficult to comprehend how the German “intellectual cultural elite could subscribe to the gangsterism” of the Nazis, says Weitz, and wrote books about Ribbentropp, “who had essentially been a champagne salesman”, and Hjalmar Schact, Hitler's banker, in an effort to understand. “I think it was easier for him to understand how the veteran of the First World War trenches, who had seen the hyper-inflation and lived in poverty, might join the Nazi Party. But how was it that these people had joined?”
Weitz doesn't think his father ever resolved the question for himself. And the way he coped with it was, he admits, “quite strange”. “He had a correspondence with Reinhard Spitzy, who was Von Ribbentropp's private secretary, a Nazi. Of course, de-Nazification might have been a political cleansing, but it didn't mean that everybody who had been in power during that period fell out of power. So he spent his life coping with that.”
Despite his conflicting feelings, Weitz says his father presented himself in later life as a man who was at peace with Germany and the Germans. He had even received orders of merit from the German public, partly as a consequence of his work towards reconciliation. The filmmaker was therefore surprised when, about a year ago, his mother sent him a letter that John had written around the Dachau period, containing “a great deal more anger than I had ever experienced, in terms of his expression towards the German people.”
In it, his father talked about how Germans living near the concentration camp were expelled from their homes so that soldiers could be billeted, “and he was certainly pleased to be part of this conquering army that had come back through,” says Weitz. “He was in his twenties, and I think to have been kicked out of his country and to have seen the aftermath of these massacres, and then to have won back possession of his country, literally, was a tremendous shaping experience for him.”
In a recent interview about A Better Life, Weitz said that he realised when he had a son that it was the responsibility of parents to teach their children that beauty is always present in the world. Was his father still able to do that for him, I ask? “It's a very deep question,” Weitz says solemnly. “Certainly he was haunted by [the past] and brooded upon it and struggled with it. But at the same time, he felt that he did still love life. And, actually, [England] had a great part in that.”
He explains that when his father went to school here, he had been “treated like a human being, having come from a country where he was a second-class citizen, or not even a human being. Because of that, he retained, for the rest of his life, a love for this country.”
As we come to the end of the interview, Weitz looks across at a poster for A Better Life that's been propped up against a wall, and falls silent. He then returns to the subject of his roots.
“So yes, I'm the son of a refugee,” he says, “and it took me a long time to understand the differences between his experiences and mine, and how much he'd sacrificed and given up to make life better for me, and for the rest of my family. Which is sort of the theme of this movie.”
A Better Life opens today
A version of this story appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, 29/07/11