During the last session of the Research Forum class our students had the opportunity of seeing the film “Kapo in Jerusalem” and speaking with screenwriter Motti Lerner, who is a renowned screenwriter and playwright. Lerner teaches playwriting at Kibbutz College in Tel Aviv and his numerous plays have been performed in nine countries outside of Israel.
Lerner introduced the film prior to the screening. He shared that the Israeli attitude towards Jews who worked for the Nazis was very strict. They were regarded as traitors, some were put on trial, and some were killed without trial. Lerner stated that the film was produced to explore Israeli attitude towards Nazi functionaries and that it was inspired by Story of Eliezer Greenbaum who was a block leader in Auschwitz in charge of 900 prisoners. Following the War Greenbaum was tried twice for his actions as block leader and found not guilty. However, when he moved to Israel he was unable to get a job or maintain social relationships as a result of his past. Greenbaum volunteered in the 1948 War for Independence and was killed.
The film Kapo in Jerusalem explores the role of functionaries by focusing on one functionary. The film takes place in Israel following WWII and most of the film is a series of monologues given by witnesses who knew Bruno, the former Kapo at the center of the film. Throughout the film witnesses such as Bruno’s wife, a doctor who trained him in Warsaw prior to the outbreak of the War, and former prisoners of Auschwitz speak about Bruno and how he acted in his position of power and collaboration with the SS. Some of the witnesses indict Bruno and others defend him. The resulting balance is so delicate that the viewer doesn’t quite know what to think about Bruno. In the end it becomes obvious that it is impossible to judge Bruno. The film raises multiple questions but provides few answers. The viewer is left with an understanding of just how difficult survival was in Auschwitz and the tragic and complex choices prisoners had to make as they negotiated the narrow divide between life and death in hell.
After viewing the film our students were able to speak further with Lerner about the film and the process of making it. A central question that was discussed was how do you make a film about Auschwitz? Lerner feels that it is almost impossible. He believes you need distance and hence none of the scenes in the film were shot at Auschwitz. He also chose to focus on the personal experience of inmates as an audience can’t handle the horrors of Auschwitz and there is no benefit to reconstructing it. Lerner said the purpose of film is to put a question on Israeli society’s past tendency to put Bruno on trial, not to defend his actions but to question his condemnation. The film doesn’t give answers about what morality is or should have been in Auschwitz. It merely shows the complexities of survival in Auschwitz. Lerner reinforced the difficulties of the Kapo’s role and how it is hard to judge what people did. He shared that Israeli audiences are more open now to understanding the tragic nature of Bruno’s role and more willing to recognize that it is difficult to understand, judge, and have empathy.
Lerner was asked about the process of writing the film and he shared that the first thought was to tell the story linearly but they realized that was impossible. Then they incorporated the idea to use monologues to make the film more intimate. He wanted to give witnesses a chance to talk and say what they were never able to say and what others never wanted to hear. Lerner was asked about the extent to which the film was based on primary source testimony. His response was that the film is fiction – all the characters are invented, but he did extensive research prior to writing the film. He got inspiration from Primo Levi’s books, survivor testimony, and many of Bruno’s monologues are based on an essay written by Eliezer Greenbaum about what it meant to be a kapo. Hearing the screenwriter’s perspective on the film, what he intended, and being able to ask him questions enriched the experience of watching the film for our students.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/