The Artful Way of Telling About the Holocaust Inna Rogatchi and Her Film on Simon Wiesenthal

By Leena Eronen (C)

Ha-Kehila, 1/2015, Finland

Witer / Film-maker Inna Rogatchi. Photo: Leena Eronen (C​).

The Artful Way of Telling on the Holocaust
Inna Rogatchi and her Film on Simon Wiesenthal
By Leena Eronen (C)
Ha-Kehila, 1/2015

In the Autumn 2014, we saw the Finnish premiere of a rare document, The Lessons of Survival. Conversations with Simon Wiesenthal.
At the event, I managed to meet with the film’s maker, Inna Rogatchi, just on the eve of her trip to Lithuania to film her next project, a mini-series telling the untold stories of the Warsaw and Vilna Ghettos.  

Born in Ukraine, Jewish writer and film-maker Inna is living in Finland for over 25 years.
Can you tell us more about your other films?

Almost all my films are of an hour’ length which is a good format for documentaries, to me. Among the persons whose personal portraits I’ve tried to create on a screen, are president Vaclav Havel, Elena Bonner, the wife of the Academician Andrei Sakharov, dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, politician general Alexander Lebed, and many others. I always was interested in not just making a personal profile, but to try to get into the psychology of my heroes; so it could be said that in all my films, psychology does play the main role.

I always has been and still am mostly interested on the point where history, culture and mentality meets, and am trying in my films to examine those cross-points via and by histories, biographies and characters of those personalities whom I was lucky to meet and know, and has made my films about.

The Lessons of Survival

Simon Wiesenthal ( 1908 – 2005)  went through seven labour and concentration camps. At the time of his liberation, he was an inmate of Mauthausen. He founded Jewish Documentation Centre and did help to bring to justice more than 1100 Nazi criminals. “Justice, not vengeance” was his well-known motto.

How did you meet Simon Wiesenthal?

I wrote a big article about him over 20 years ago, it was published in the Image magazine, and have got a very good reception. The article was enormous by its size, by the magazine has published it, still, as it was really unique story – reflecting the uniqueness of entire life of Simon Wiesenthal.

My husband Michael and I were very privileged to be a good friends with Simon for many years, we knew him well, visited him often, and thus, I have had that possibility to speak with him during the years.

Peter von Bagh ( 1943-2014), the patriarch of the Finnish movie world, did read my story in Image, and he has got very interested in it immediately. Peter wanted to do the film about Wiesenthal together with me, and asked me to talk to Simon about it.

It was not easy thing to organise, as Simon had endless requests for interviews, and his schedule had been always over-packed.
We were discussing the possibility of making our film for about a half of a year, and the important moment which convinced Simon to do it , was my view on the future film and its character as our usual friendly conversation. It should not be a regular interview, there should not be a distance, no formalities, no stiffness. Simon did like the idea, and agreed to make the film with a smile and readiness. He had a very disarming smile, and a smile does tell about a person a lot.

After Simon and I agreed about the way of doing our film, Peter ( von Bagh), our camera man Arto Kaivanto and I went to Austria to start the filming. Additionally to that, I’ve done a really big preparatory work, and serious historic research, too.
I was very privileged to work with materials from the incredible Wiesenthal’s Archive, and was yet more privileged to get comments on some of the documents by Simon himself. He also answered to all my questions regarding those incredibly interested and highly important documents, and always added very interesting stories related to it. Many of those documents were unpublished. So, there is a lot of new material in my film, thanks to that unique co-operation. My research work before, during and after the shooting took several years and I did it in both Austria and Poland, – tells Inna.
We were filming Simon for four days, and during couple of more days, we were filming Mauthausen and Linz. The conversations that we’ve filmed with Simon, were really very long ones, as the talks between friends usually are. I still be amazed that does matter how many times we would be talking with Simon and discussing various things, he would never repeat himself in any conversation with me, ever. He had that very rare ability to remember what he was discussing with certain person, and did not repeat himself, for once, with me, during all those years and numerous conversations. It is a very rare ability of a truly brilliant brain and phenomenal memory that he had.
When I mentioned to him that we will be filming Mauthausen on our own, without requesting him to come with us, Simon did thank me very much, indeed.  I never do that kind of ‘vivisection’-journalism, and never could imagine to ask the people who already did suffer so much, to return to the camp, to talk on the camera on that. I categorically refuse to do anything like that.
Our camera man, Arto Kaivanto, professional through and through, who had seen many terrible things in the world, did ask me in the evening, after we returned from our filming day in Mauthausen, on had I noticed that for some while his camera worked without him – as he had lost consciousness while filming the certain places of that place of sheer horror.  

The film had been planned by Peter ( von Bagh) to become a part of his Golden Library, a series of biographies of the twenty most remarkable people of the XX century.

Tohtori Inna Rogatchille luovutettiin vuoden 2014 Patmos
tunnustuksena hänen työstään kulttuurin,
hyväntekeväisyyden ja julkisen elämän, moraalisten arvojen sekä
ihmisarvoisen elämän puolesta. Hänen elokuvansa Simon Wiesenthalista
hyväksyttiin äskettäin United States Holocaust Memorial
Museumin kokoelmiin.
hakehila 43

But then Peter was so very busy with many of his projects, and the Golden Library left as a good idea only. A few years after the filming Wiesenthal, I have discussed with Peter von Bagh my intention to do the film by myself. His response to that was positive, and my production company has bought the entire material and rights from the Peter’s company.  That was the start of my producing and making the film”, – says Inna.

The European Premiere at the European Parliament

The Lessons of Survival film has been presented internationally widely – its European Premiere had been at the European Parliament at the commemoration of the Holocaust & Remembrance Day 2014, and it had been presented at the special session of the European Club of the Seimas ( Parliament ) of Lithuania.

Additionally to that, among many other international institutions, Yad Vashem, Columbia and Hebrew Universities has acquired the film.

In the spring 2015, the Australian premiere of the film will be launched in both Melbourne and Sydney at the largest in Australia and New Zealand Jewish International Film Festival. In June 2015, the film will conclude the Faces of Humanity Festival in Chicago, in the joint project of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the Chicago Film Festival.

The official trailer of the film can be seen at the Youtube

Among the new historic materials in the Inna Rogatchi’s film, there are those related to the searches of both Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele; new information and details concerning the Wiesenthals’ dramatic experiences with opening, closing and re-opening of his office , his tireless search for Nazis all around the globe, as well as new knowledge on the search and arrest of the officer who has arrested Anne Frank.

I have told to Inna that I saw her film at its Finnish premiere in Helsinki in the Autumn 2014. The music plays a very special role in this film, and as if opens it up even deeper.  When I was watching the film, very often I had a strong feeling that I am watching art-film.

-Was it the purpose, to make an art-film, Inna?
– It is very well said, as it was precisely the purpose. When Ruth Diskin, Israeli distributor of the film, watched it, it was her reaction, as all. She is of an opinion that the film is unique and touching. And I have an explanation for that – this film is not a regular documentary, it has been neither conceived, or executed that way. A very special role in the film is played by original art by my husband Michael Rogatchi, mine original art  photographycollages, and the music by the one of the best modern Israeli composer Israel Sharon.

All this art applied and integrated in the film, has created its own world which affects people’s perception in the special way.   The paintings of my husband are deeply metaphorical, he is a world renowned master of the metaphorical expressionism. The one of the art works which are playing important role in the film, The Way, had been with Simon and Cyla Wiesenthal for many years, and they did write to us that they did like it very much.

When Peter von Bagh saw the ready film in spring 2014, he wrote to me: “it is beautifully done”. He was really happy that such great and very special material has got into a film. And I, too, was very glad that Peter who did fight cancer for long, lived to see the film. It is important for me.  

On Modern Anti-Semitism

Next we turned to a big issue.
How anti-Semitism has been originated, in your opinion? From which source did it sprang?

Do you mean the hatred against Jews before and during the Second World War, or modern anti-Semitism? Although, there is a direct and strong inter-connection between those two stages of the same phenomenon, in my opinion. I do think that after the end of the Second World War, there has been absolutely not enough done and said about the horrific, devastating tragedy that Jewry of Poland, Central Europe, France, as a matter of fact, the Jewry of entire Europe went through during the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. It was and still is absolutely unparalleled.

And as unbelievable as it is, there is very little researched and said on what has happened to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their families just and soon after the end of the Second World War. The entire subject has been brought as the matter of to public discussion only several years ago, and since then, only few books has been written about it.  

After all that unspeakable horror, the houses and belonging of the victims of the Holocaust were taken from them, people were literally robbed, neglected, abused, – and it was not matter of interest of anyone in any country for decades. It does tell you something about hatred towards Jewish people which was overwhelming and the scale of it is still shocking, to me.  I am absolutely sure that the subject has to be researched much more better, and its results should be publicised as widely, as possible.

Anti-Semitism has originated from a very long tradition, to the extent that when we, Jewish people, are talking about it in between ourselves, it comes with the assumption that ‘it has been always there, that it is a part of life’. But come on, this very way  of thinking is quite abnormal, to say the very least.

Coming to the modern anti-Semitism, it has become so open, ugly and arrogant that my husband and I never believed that we would never live the day to see it so bad, and that it will become a reality, as it has become nowadays.

Anti-Semitism has become fashionable, and that’s the main problem of nowadays, as far as I am concerned. It is just terrible to see what’s happening in Sweden, France, United Kingdom; even in Miami, the violent anti-Semitic attacks started to happen now, it was impossible thing to imagine yet a half of year ago.

The most dangerous phenomenon of the present day, the extreme radical Islamists, are swiping all over Europe and the USA, and it is looming huge problem. Under the circumstances, it is vital, in my view, that the civilised, human society will handle that threat as best and fastest, as possible.

Helsinki, December 2014.