Niklas Frank Discusses His Life And My Nazi Legacy

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David Leon Talks About Making His Feature-Directoring Debut With 'Orthodox'

Stephen Graham as Benjamin
 As an actor, David Leon has appeared in films including Oliver Stone's Alexander and Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla. His hard-hitting new film Orthodox, starring Stephen Graham as a boxing Orthodox Jew, marks his feature-directing debut.  

Getting people to open their wallets for a first feature is never easy, says actor-turned filmmaker David Leon, whose provocative debut, Orthodox, is playing in the UK Jewish Film Festival. “You know no one is going to give you that opportunity on a silver plate. So you have to find innovative and dynamic ways of working around the system."

He started by making a short version, as “a kind of pilot”, to give potential investors an idea of what the feature-length movie would look and feel like. Also called Orthodox, it starred Stephen Graham (This is England, Broadwalk Empire) as an Orthodox Jew called Benjamin who's alienated himself from his community by becoming a boxer. The short was self-contained and existed in its own right. However, by making the material part of the longer version, Leon, who had gained experience in front of the camera in movies such as Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla and Oliver Stone's Alexander, only needed to raise funding for a 70 minute, rather than a 90 minute, feature. 

Whilst it was a clever (and ultimately successful) strategy, getting a feature off the ground was still difficult. The film's Orthodox Jewish backdrop could be regarded as somewhat niche, but Leon always saw this as a strength. 

It was my intention that it would be niche,” he says. “I think when you make a micro-budget film like this, you have a responsibility to deal with subject matter that is niche, and probably in an unconventional way, because it is the only thing that allows your story to stand out, quite often."

 Leon was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne and is Jewish on his father's side. His religious upbringing was “moderate”, with neither parent forcing their different point of view on him. “As a consequence, it made me much more inquisitive,” he says. “And as I grew older, I became more intrigued by the conflicts that presented. And there certainly was conflict when my mother and father got together.” 

He describes himself as “half Jewish”, an identification which is “a very personal thing”, he says. He knows that to the Orthodox community he is in no senses Jewish, and this informed some of the feelings surrounding Benjamin's situation in the film. A proud and dedicated family man, he longs to be fully acccepted by his community, but the choices he has made in his life – including marrying a secular woman who converted – and his inability to meet the standards of observance demanded of him, have landed him between worlds. 

His troubles begin when he defies his father and takes up boxing, following a violent anti-Semitic attack. Leon witnessed such an assault on a Hassidic boy by “secular kids” in Stamford Hill. The fact that it happened in liberal, cosmopolitan London made it seem all the more “archaic and barbaric”, he says. 

What was interesting was that that boy was literally wearing his beliefs on his sleeve. We all believe in various things but we don't all dress in a way that projects that for the world to see, and that's an incredibly brave thing. I wondered whether [the attack] would make him more intent on his values, or whether it could make him question them.” 

That Benjamin's father effectively cuts his son off for (reluctantly) pursuing boxing as a response to his attack, seems extreme.

Leon, though, spent 18 months in Orthodox communities in Newcastle, Gateshead, and north London doing background research for the short and feature, and says he learned that “the idea of one man inflicting pain upon another was frowned upon in the context of the Jewish faith.”

Stephen Graham (Right)

He found this fascinating. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, Jewish men used boxing as way to escape from being part of an underclass, and to assimilate and confront anti-Semitism. The sport turned them into heroes. But times change and Saul's reaction has to be seen in the wider context of the challenges now facing a community whose cultural cohesion, Leon seems to be suggesting, is under threat from modernity. 

The intention was never to make an observation on the religion,” he explains. “It was much more about the culture. And not just about Jewish culture but about 21st century culture and the demands that are placed on people within the Orthodox Jewish community as a consequence.”

The community is not monolithic but composed of individuals. And while they may all live under the same umbrella of shared beliefs, “some will believe in certain things more extremely than others”, says Leon. “I think what that does, in this day and age where we have access to information at the touch of a button, particularly to kids and those that have less strength of character, or those that are more inquisitive, is present a real conflict that I think the Orthodox Jewish community has never had before.” 

Benjamin represents this as a character and, in some respects, in the choice of actor playing him. Stephen Graham ties on Tefillin and wears a kippah like he's been doing it all of his life, but he's not Jewish. In fact the question of whether a Jew should play the role never came up, says Leon. 

In many ways the character is as much secular as he is Jewish, because of the way he chooses to live his life. So there was something interesting, as a film-maker, in taking somebody who is not Jewish and introducing them to that world, because here is a man who to all intents and purposes is not living his life as a Jewish man; he is living his life as a kind of a halfway house.” 

Benjamin's predicament – inspired by someone Leon met – allows the film to reveal some of the different sides of the community, which is portrayed honestly, seemingly accurately, and without sentimentality. It offers people love and security, but can be tough on those who don't observe its practices.

That was my experience,” says Leon. “The community can be a very safe environment and somewhere people feel very close, and there was a real sense of people looking after one another. But it's fair to say the demands placed on the individual are very restrictive and very unrelenting. And I think if you don't toe the line, you can be cast aside and ostracised.”

Many do meet the demands, of course. For Leon, as a film-maker, however, “those who fall through the cracks and fall by the wayside” are more interesting. 

That said, he stresses that he came away from the process of making Orthodox having encountered a “beautiful feeling of being willing to forgive. There is an unremitting attitude towards forgiveness, and I think that is something that the Jewish faith, particularly, upholds.”


Joshua Oppenheimer on The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence returns to the slaughter of around a million supposed Communists in Indonesia in 1965, explored in his disturbing Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. Whereas that film concentrated on the perpetrators, Oppenheimer’s focus this time is a family who lost a member in the purge, and have suffered in silence ever since.

This is the documentary he always wanted to make. However, when he first started speaking to survivors in the plantation belt outside Medan, in North Sumatra, the workers were warned off by threats from the army. Unable to co-operate themselves, they encouraged Oppenheimer to meet the killers instead.

These men lived without fear. Hailed as heroic defenders of the nation – a narrative, Oppenheimer shows in The Look of Silence, still being taught in schools – they had no shame and, in encounter after encounter, boastfully recounted their grisly atrocities to him in horrifying detail.

Out of these encounters came The Act of Killing, which helped to foster a new openness in the way the mainstream media in Indonesia talked about the events of 1965 and their legacy. The government, though, resisted until the Oscar nomination gave them no choice.

“They said, ‘Look, we understand the killings were a crime against humanity and we will deal with them in our own time,’” says Oppenheimer. “Now the government’s said it’s wrong, how long can they continue to teach history the way we see them do it in The Look of Silence?”

That history is explicitly challenged in the new film by Adi, an optometrist in his mid-forties, whose brother, Ramli, was murdered by a death squad in North Sumatra, two years before he was born.

Oppenheimer first heard about Ramli from the plantation workers. His name “was virtually synonymous with the whole massacre”, he says, because despite being badly wounded, Ramli managed to escape his captors and return to his parents’ house. Tragically, he was recaptured and left for dead in a creek, from where he was heard screaming for help. “That led passers-by to gather. Eventually the death squad came back and killed him. They left his body in the plantation. So his death had witnesses and in that sense was irrefutable.”

Adi was keenly interested in what Oppenheimer was trying to do. “Over the seven years of filming with the perpetrators, 2003-2010, he would watch as much as there was time for,” says the director. “He would visit us in our house in Medan to view rushes from The Act of Killing, and he would watch it with a mixture of devastation, curiosity, anger and distress.”

Oppenheimer always knew there was another film to be made. But also that he’d have to move fast and shoot it before The Act of Killing was released, because afterwards it would be too dangerous for him to return to Indonesia. So, after he’d finished editing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer set about filming meetings between Adi and some of the perpetrators he’d filmed years earlier. These included Inong Sungai, one of Ramli’s killers, who talks about drinking the blood of his victims to stave off madness, and Amir Siahaan, the commander who oversaw the death squads where the murder took place.

Concerned the men might tip each other off, Oppenheimer worked quickly, filming one confrontation per day. He’d then spend the evenings between meetings with Anwar Congo, the greying killer from The Act of Killing. “I believed that if perpetrators were speaking to each other, Anwar would be told first because everybody knew he had been working with me for years. I know Anwar well enough that I would be able to tell if something was wrong, and we could stop the confrontations then and there."

He let Adi decide whether to reveal his connection to Ramli. Most important was that the perpetrators voluntarily told Adi what they’d told him in 2003/2004. “He had viewed my old footage, so he could’ve confronted them saying, ‘I saw what you said to Joshua,’ but the perpetrators would feel trapped. It was important they know that they told Adi what they did.”

Adi doesn’t want revenge but to see some sign of remorse. Instead, his dignified challenges to the official history and taboo-breaking accusations of murder are met with anger, defensiveness and threats.

In his last confrontation, with the widow of one of Ramli’s killers and her sons, Adi’s quest for some kind of closure is snuffed out as he is stonewalled by the woman’s denials about her husband’s guilt, despite Oppenheimer’s filmed proof and a book the killer wrote about his gruesome activities.

“That’s an important scene,” says Oppenheimer, “because it’s saying to viewers who want a comfortable ending, ‘No, there is a mess lurking under the surface.’ It exposes the tension and fear that cuts across Indonesian society, the abyss of an unspeakable past that divides neighbour from neighbour.”

These tensions and divisions were evident when the film opened in Indonesia. Unlike the release of The Act of Killing, which had begun with closed events, the first screenings of The Look of Silence were sponsored by government bodies (The Jakarta Arts Council and the National Human Rights Commission) and open to the public. However, as the film spread, there was a backlash from the army.

“They organised thugs to threaten to attack the screenings,” says Oppenheimer, “and then used this as an excuse to demand screenings be cancelled. Only when university students in Yogyakarta defied police orders to cancel the screenings, barricading themselves into their campus, did this intimidation end.”

He is clear about what this means: “This is evidence of the army and police’s opposition to addressing the past. This opposition is shared among all who have enriched themselves through corruption and plunder, because they fear that as the truth of their plunder is exposed, people will question the legitimacy of their spoils.”

After shooting The Look of Silence, Adi and his wife and children had to “move thousands of kilometres to protect their safety,” says Oppenheimer, showing that despite some progress in the public discourse, “little has changed”.

The Look of Silence ends messily, but it is truthful. And Oppenheimer hopes that by witnessing – or more to the point, feeling – the truth, viewers will have their eyes, hearts and minds opened further.

“I am confident any human being watching is likely to be touched by Adi and his parents’ experience of 50 years of fear and silence, and even viewers from the army, or from perpetrators’ families, will feel in their bodies how torn the social fabric is, and how urgently needed are truth, reconciliation, and some form of justice and healing.”

Article appeared in The Scotsman June 8, 2015



Philippe Sands Discusses His Extraordinary Fathers & Sons Documentary, My Nazi Legacy

'My quest to understand the unapologetic Nazis'

By Stephen Applebaum, November 5, 2015

Left to right: Horst von Wachter, Philippe Sands, Niklas Frank
When Philippe Sands was growing up, the Holocaust loomed silently over his world like an unwanted visitor who won't leave. “I've lived with it my whole life,” says the eminent barrister, when we meet to discuss his role in the thought-provoking new documentary, My Nazi Legacy.

I grew up in a household in which we didn't have German things. My brother and I knew there were things that had happened, but like many families we never talked about it.”

Sands' mother was born in Vienna and survived the war as a “hidden child” in France. She claims to remember nothing before 1945. His grandfather, who was born in Lviv in western Ukraine, never spoke about the war or where he came from. Sands later discovered that he was the only survivor in a family of 80.

So there was no talking about it, but it's there. And it's a big issue. And it informs and it affects you, and I'm sure it affected the career choices that I made.”

Last year, when filming the documentary with director David Evans, Sands found himself standing in a waterlogged field in Ukraine where the remains of most of his grandfather's family lie - among 3,500 people murdered, with a single bullet to the head, on March 25th, 1943 - to this day.

With him were Horst von Wachter and Niklas Frank, the sons of high-ranking Nazis Otto von Wachter and Hans Frank, whose implementation of the Final Solution wiped out the remaining Jewish population of Lviv and its surroundings.

The trio had already visited a former parliamentary chamber where Hans gave a speech in which he praised Otto for making many of Lviv's Jews disappear; and the imposing disused synagogue where Sands' family worshipped which the Nazis set on fire. Their next stop brought him face to face with current Ukrainian Nazi sympathisers at a chilling commemoration ceremony for the Waffen-SS Galicia Division – the first SS unit to enlist foreign fighters – created by Otto.

The men's lives converged after Sands became fascinated with Frank's father - “He was highly intelligent, highly educated; how could someone take the direction he had taken?” - while researching a book due for publication next year, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. He wrote to Niklas after reading his acclaimed book about his father Hans, In the Shadow of the Reich, and they met in Hamburg, where they talked for hours. While Niklas bitterly distanced himself - psychologically, emotionally, morally – from Hans and his crimes, he told Sands: “You should meet my friend Horst. They're not all like me.”

Left to right: von Wachter, Sands, Frank
In the film, Niklas takes out a photograph of his father after he'd been hanged for mass murder at Nuremberg. (He keeps it as proof to himself that he really is dead, but also to remind Germans about what can happen when civil society breaks down.) Horst also shows Sands photographs, but the mood is different. Horst feels no anger towards his father, just love and devotion. It was the system that was wrong, he says, absolving Otto of any responsibility. Unlike Hans Frank, von Wachter was concealed with help from the Vatican, and died before he could be brought to justice. If he had gone to Nuremberg, he would have been acquitted, Horst insists. “Who would speak against him?” he asks Sands, rhetorically. “Only the Jews.”

When Sands visited Horst for the first time, the Austrian and his wife were living in three ground-floor rooms of their crumbling Gormenghast-like schloss. “It was bitterly cold, -2, -3 inside, and he's broke,” says Sands. Horst kept his father's library on the third floor, and the photograph albums he produced astonished and fascinated the lawyer. “You open them and there's Goering and Goebbels and Himmler and 'AH' [Adolf Hitler], and incredible images.”

One day, Horst took a black book down off a shelf. “It was Mein Kampf and it was inscribed by his mother - she'd bought it as an engagement present - 'For our struggle.' So he lives with it and he'll say: 'That's interesting. I didn't know that I had that.'”

Neither Horst nor Niklas hid anything from the film-makers, and even agreed to open up their dialogue to the public in a live discussion at the Purcell Room in London last year, which forms part of the documentary. “We thought there would be a huge explosion, that they wouldn't be talking to each other anymore, and that would be the end of the film,” reveals Sands.

Instead, the men respectfully held their positions without any major fireworks. And it wasn't until near the end of the debate, when Horst proudly revealed that his father is venerated in Ukraine, that the filmmakers knew where to go next. 

“After the Purcell Room, Horst said, 'Well, if we're going to go to the Ukraine, let's go on commemoration weekend and I'll introduce you to all these lovely people.'”

During the trip, Sands becomes increasingly impatient with Horst's refusal to recognise his father's guilt. In a key scene, he presents him with a document proving Otto's involvement in mass murder and is rebuffed. “His reaction, let's just say, irritates me,” says Sands, “and I lose my rag.” He admits he's “uncomfortable” with the scene. As a barrister you're “trained: don't show your emotion, stay cool, be balanced.” But, he adds, “I'm a lawyer and I'm a human being and there are points where one can no longer be excluded with the other.”

Although he never succeeded in eliciting an acknowledgement from Horst, it was important to him to keep trying because “there's a concern that in failing to acknowledge you effectively take ownership of what has happened, and that really bothered me.”

Their last destination, where newly unearthed remains of fallen Waffen SS soldiers were being buried in a ceremony attended by men in Nazi uniforms, is the most troubling. Throughout the film there is a strong sense of the past pressing against and informing the present, and nowhere was this more explicit. “My big theme in this is if you suppress stuff, it will come back,” says Sands. “It doesn't go away. It's my own family story of my grandfather and mum not wanting to talk about these things and nevertheless it comes back. And I think that you see that in the fields in Ukraine.”

The commemoration ceremony was “as shocking a day as I have ever had,” he says. Horst, on the other hand, couldn't have been happier. The inner conflict he sometimes seems to be experiencing up until that point appears too resolve itself as his belief in his father's decency is vindicated by Ukrainian military veterans and younger swastika-wearing attendees. Niklas is disgusted. He tells Sands he believes Horst is a full-blown Nazi and vows to break off contact with him.

I'm pretty careful who I throw that label at,” says Sands, who regards both men as victims, “and I say in the film I don't think he's a Nazi . . . But he's an apologist, and that's really bad.”

Does he think, at a time when antisemitism is increasing, that the film is a warning?

Yes, the film is an expression of my own greater consciousness of the seriousness of issues that are out there for the Jewish community but also for other communities. Xenophobia and racism are on the rise, and antisemitism is part of that.

I think David and I felt very strongly that those scenes in the Ukraine were incredibly important. But I think the heart of it is this sense that it's showing that what happened then is very alive today. Things that are deeply buried don't disappear and we have to be constantly vigilant.”

A slightly edited version of this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, November 6th, 2015

Come back soon for a full transcript of my fascinating interview with Philippe Sands