The 7th Moscow Jewish Film Festival (MJFF), which opened on October 3 at the Oktyabr Cinema Center, has been taking place in Moscow for a week now. It is an unique event which presents not only the best movies on Jewish themes from all over the globe, but also a vast educational program which is destined to increase the awareness about the most interesting and relevant phenomena, mentioned in films. A special attention is dedicated to documentary projects, because exactly through the stories of real people we can understand and feel different situations.
I managed to watch almost all these films, but the main prize from the general competition program I would like to give is a masterpiece called “Love It Was Not” (directed by Maya Sarfati, Israel, 2020). It is an amazing documentary film of a story of the impossible love of an SS-soldier to a jewish-prisoner in a prison camp. Helena Citron, daughter of a cantor from Slovakia, was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. At first she worked on the construction of a camp, then at a warehouse where prisoners’ belongings were sorted (the so-called “Canada” barrack). There, the SS Unterscharführer, Austrian Franz Wunsch, fell in love with her. He behaved humanely with Helena and her friends, and beat the male prisoners so that he once injured his hand. He saved Helena when she fell ill with typhus, and literally pulled her sister out of the gas chamber, while giving the sister’s children to destruction. The Auschwitz administration found out about relationships violating “racial laws”, Helena was interrogated, but she did not say anything. The enamored SS man confessed everything to the ominous Joseph Mengele, and he did not betray him. Wunsch hoped that after the war he would be able to live with Helena in Austria, but she left for Israel, got married and did not answer his letters. In 1972, they met again – in the Vienna courtroom, where Helena testified in the case of Wunsch’s crimes. What did she say? This and other details of the incredible story will be learned by the viewer of the film, edited from the stories of Helena, her sister, the elderly Wunsch and his daughter, former prisoners of Auschwitz and participants in the Vienna court at which the SS man was acquitted.
As a child, my first theatre teacher was Helena Citron’s niece. She entrusted me with the story of the two sisters with the understanding that one day, I would become a voice and share these events. Throughout my years as an artist I have strived to tell this story. By trying to write it as prose, I was embarrassed looking down at my words, feeling they had failed to reflect those epic events as real-life experiences. Five years ago, when we first got in touch with the Nazi’s daughter, I was struck with the understanding that the exact medium for this story should be a documentary. I realized that my job was to provide a stage on which this story’s real heroes would share their memories, using their own words and describing the events that shaped their lives. The ambivalence between good and evil is what drove me at first. Franz was both a sadistic monster, and a gentleman capable of love and compassion. Helena was also not your ideal image of an innocent victim: a strong woman with unbelievable survival skills, who managed to love a cruel SS officer and even forgive him for his inconceivable actions, in light of him helping her and her sister. As I see it, appealing the dichotomous perception of good versus evil is the cornerstone for this film’s relevance to our current lives. That is what makes it an important story that had to be told. “Love It Was Not” inevitably raises ethical questions concerning the protagonists of the past. It strives to avoid judgment, yet it offers a direct human take of their lives during the terrible period in the deathcamp, and the efforts they needed afterwards to come back into the living, – Maya Sarfati says in one of her interviews
“It Was Not Love” is not Maya Sarfati’s first documentary work. As an Israeli director and screenwriter, she has already presented the short film The Most Beautiful Woman (2016) at various film festivals and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Documentary. As for her last work – “It Was Not Love”, initially the director wanted to make a fictional picture about this novel between a Nazi and a Jewish woman, but it seemed to her that she was misinterpreting and romanticizing history, and settled on documentary filmmaking. In my opinion, this was an excellent decision, because only the participants in these events themselves were able to reveal so deeply to us the most intimate and complex. Namely, questions of choice, love, honor, dignity, duty and respect for their people and their traditions. After watching the film, I was able to discuss the problems of working with the famous Russian psychiatrist Vladimir Katorgin, who was also at the screening.
It is not just a powerful film, but also a strong psychological history of heroes. Not every person gets to feel those emotions and take a step into a new life. If we speak of film’s problem, then I agree with its title – it was not love. There is such notion in psychiatry as Stockholm Syndrome. I think it is what Helena went through. When a victim is in a complicated and dangerous situation, they will seek any option to survive. Survival instinct works. And humility and obedience increase the chance. Elena understood that in order to survive, it was best to establish a connection with the aggressor. In her case, falling in love with the SS soldier was a defensive reaction, to which the brain gave a portion of the appropriate hormones (oxytocin – the hormone of attachment, empathy and love). Gradually, fear is replaced by sympathy, then falling in love, and now – love, that is, an empathic reaction directed to a specific subject, which seemed unrealistic quite recently. “In the end, I fell in love with him,” Helena admits, but initially it was only about mutual benefit: she asked to save her sister, he, like a true Aryan, kept his promise, thereby attracting her attention. It was NOT LOVE initially, it is a way of adapting to a situation that grew out of disgust. If you remember the description of the heroine about the first meeting, when she was forced to sing in front of the murderers of the family. But under the influence of external, irreversible for both factors, a warm feeling is formed, the name of which only two know, – said Vladimir Katorgin
Whether this film is going to get the main award or not, we will know only tonight at the ceremony of awards and closing of the film festival on October, 12. For now, I definitely recommend this film, because it does not only tell us about an incredible story of forbidden love, but also reminds us about duty and respect to our nation. After 30 years, in the courtroom, Helena never looked and Wunsch – she was the voice of her nation and family.