Despite Treblinka – Synopsis
Largely ignored by documentary filmmakers, yet critical for the Nazi regime’s implementation of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem,” Treblinka claimed the lives of 900,000 Jews – most of the Warsaw Jews were among these- and 500 gypsies, according to most estimates. In August 2, 1943, the prisoners uprooted, killing SS guards, igniting the gas chambers and the structures of the camp. Only a few escaped and most were hunted down before the end of the war. Sixty years later, eight Treblinka survivors remain worldwide.
Despite Treblinka features a handful that have lived through this bitter fortune: Schmuel Willenberg, a painter and former Partisan and his wife Ada –who jumped over the walls of the Warsaw ghetto at age 13-; Chil Rajchman, an 89 years-old entrepreneur who declared against Treblinka’s “Butcher” Iwan Demjanjuk, and Kalman Teigman, a retiree who declared against Adolf Eichmann.
Except for Rajchman, who lives in Uruguay, all Treblinka survivors live in Israel.
After preproduction and the first shootings in Uruguay, Director and Executive Producer Gerardo Stawsky traveled to Israel, where he spent a few months contacting and getting to know participants, researching archives, crewing up and shooting. He then returned to Uruguay for new shootings and postproduction.
Despite Treblinka tells survivors’ stories and shows their lives, their post-war families and friends. It provides a comprehensive, vivid portrait of their efforts –neither successful nor failed, at times hopeful- to live after Treblinka while trying to overcome despair and displacement. Like Biblical prophets, witnesses of the depth of extermination, Treblinka survivors have to cope with guilt arising from their own unexpected survival –why me.
The film explores keys to spiritual reconstruction. On the one hand is the urge to recall and bear witness: they have survived to tell; they will tell to survive. On the other hand, there is the quest for a new family and ensuing dilemmas –among these, survivor’s fears of bringing children into the post-Treblinka world.
Despite Trebinka begins with an excerpt recovered from a dusty audio archive: Chil Rajchman’s wife Lila –herself a Warsaw survivor who died 12 years ago in an accident- recalls their first days as refugees. The sequence sets the conflict and the purpose of this film. It plays as follows (please disregard formatting):
A lighted and deserted avenue at night (“One winter afternoon we were walking down Brazil Avenue. It was just the two us back then, we didn’t have a home yet. I remember how I would look into the lit windows of houses, buildings. You could tell there were families inside…”).
Camera tilts up a building’s façade and pans over a pent-house; in a scintillating room, Chil Rajchman hosts a group of survivors, who watch an advanced cut of Despite Treblinka; they hear Lila’s words over family photographs (“…I wondered, will the day come when I am inside a house, not out here in the street?…”).
CUP of Rajchman, as he sees a picture with Lila on the screen (“…I can't quite explain it, that’s what I felt. I wasn't sure we would be able to have a normal family”).
Despite Treblinka integrates an array of storytelling options: interviews to camera, dialogues between survivors –with the intention of keeping them busy with each other, attenuating camera effect, while fostering audience involvement- and other observational sequences.
The film excludes omniscient voice-over: it intends to display a drifting array of emotions and memories through subjective, “impressionistic” stories. Participants were encouraged to try and avoid general accounts and opinions, and be alert to meaningful detail
At key moments, the film cuts to an observational sequence –shot almost two years after the rest of the material- where survivors watch an earlier version of the film. The crew registers their reactions to their own story and archival material unfolding on the screen. Unlike Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’Eté, the intention here was to capture expressions, gestures and occasional brief comments. The audience feels as if watching the film along with the protagonists, in real time.
Despite Treblinka also features an impressive collection of archival footage and stills (including rare pre-war footage of Jewish life in Europe), and the soundtrack of acclaimed free jazz and avant-garde composer and performer John Zorn in a kleizmer phase, featuring his Masada Chamber Ensemble, a New York blend of Yiddish music with jazz and contemporary classical.
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