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Genocide: Postscript: Making of the Film
 

Postscript: The Making of the Film Genocide
MARVIN HIER

In the fall of 1979, 1 proposed to the Board of Trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that we produce a major multimedia presentation on the Holocaust. My reasons were twofold. A new generation too young to remember the Holocaust now makes up the majority of the population and they need to know about the nature of the world they have inherited. Perhaps even more importantly, most of the films on the Holocaust, while careful to document the horrors, fall to capture the essence of the lives that were lost-who these people were and what values they lived by. I felt that this approach was essential, since it was the only way we could motivate young people to study the Holocaust. Unless the viewers could personally identify with the victims, it would be difficult for them to empathize with their fate.

With these presuppositions, and with no formal background in movie- making, Chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Board of Trustees Samuel Belzberg, a leading Canadian financier, philanthropist, and community leader, along with Chairwoman Esther Cohen, a Holocaust survivor and member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, accompanied me to an appointment with Saul Bass, a multimedia specialist who had been highly recommended to us. We went to Bass hoping to persuade him to take on the assignment, or at the very least, to ascertain his view on a potential film. As it turned out, Bass could not fit our film into his schedule, but he did give us some very good advice: "Don't compromise on quality, and don't tell me that someone who belongs to your organization has a camera so he will direct, and you know someone who is a musician and he will write you a score. To do your film properly and professionally will cost a few million dollars; that's life, and if it's important enough to you, then you will find the money.

With Bass' words still fresh in mind, we tried to adjust to the idea of a multimillion-dollar budget. It was clear to us that unless we could raise that kind of money, we had no business even attempting the project.

I then proposed that we ask Simon Wiesenthal to undertake a national fundraising drive, which would take him to at least half a dozen cities to raise the money for this project. At the same time, I began the search for a professional writer and director. The search led us to Arnold Schwartzman, who was then working for Saul Bass. Bass recommended Schwartzman, because in addition to film making, he had an international reputation as a graphic designer. Schwartzman was hired for the project.

At this phase of development, I thought the film should be a multimedia presentation- that is, the combined usage of film and stills on multiple screens. I felt that this would open up new possibilities in presenting the many dimensions of the Holocaust which could otherwise not be shown through a single lens. I was convinced that it would be ideal for an exhibit at the Wiesenthal Center's museum and at other major cultural institutions. Indeed, a multimedia presentation about the universe at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., has never diminished in timeliness.

The project gained new momentum when Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill and professor at Oxford University, was asked to write the historical script. Gilbert, author of a number of books on the Holocaust, was then writing another study on this topic. In our first meeting in London in early 1980, Gilbert agreed that Genocide be written from a combined historical and personal perspective, and that the factual material be balanced by selected verified testimonies. We proposed that these personal accounts derive from the last wills, testaments, poems, and admonitions found at Birkenau or Bergen-Belsen.

Soon after the meeting in London, Schwartzman assembled a team to accompany him on research trips to archives located in Europe, the Un tied States, and Israel.

Simon Wiesenthal had, meanwhile, arrived in the United States for a two-week lecture tour to help raise funds for the project. Wiesenthal, who had given his name to the Center and is considered a major spokesman for Holocaust survivors, was both excited and apprehensive about this undertaking. He was worried about asking for financial support. He remembered his own negative experience with American Jews who, in the 1960s, failed to perceive the importance of his work. When he really needed their help, they did not respond. Once the tour started, Simon saw the excitement the film concept generated. His own excitement mounted when Esther Cohen and John Francis (a producer and promoter of Hollywood shows), arranged for Simon Wiesenthal to meet Frank Sinatra in San Francisco in the middle of his lecture tour. Sinatra, who had an immediate rapport with Wiesenthal, told Simon that he had been his hero for many years, and had always looked forward to meeting him. Sinatra was interested in Simon's life and work, particularly the 1,000 Nazis he brought to trial. Sinatra wanted to know how he could help now. Sensing Simon's reluctance, he pressed Esther Cohen, who told Sinatra about the Center and its new film project. "Why would you want to hide something like that from me?" Sinatra asked. "Although I'm not Jewish, the Holocaust is important to me." Sinatra donated the first $100,000 to the project at this meeting and became a member of the Wiesenthal Center's Board of Trustees. Earlier that evening he had told 3,000 people attending his San Francisco concert that his personal hero was seated in the audience. He then introduced Simon to a five-minute standing ovation. Since that day, Sinatra has made four appearances for the Center and was directly responsible for raising an additional $400,000 for the film. When Simon returned to Vienna in late June, $1 million had been raised and committed to the project. In addition, a Simon Wiesenthal Fellows Society was created with twenty-five Fellows pledging more than $2.5 million over a period of five years.

The funding was more certain and our attention now turned to the production. Gilbert sent me a first draft of the script, and Schwartzman returned from his trip bringing with him enormous photo and document files. It was now time to talk about narration and music. Gilbert's script sketched the history of the Third Reich, incorporating Wiesenthal's concern for the suffering of non-Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. Although our main aim was to show the uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy, Simon felt it a major mistake not to mention Nazi persecution of other ethnic groups. I felt that the script also needed a poetic, personal style that would communicate the suffering more profoundly. Both Gilbert and Schwartzman agreed that I should revise the script to reflect this.

Schwartzman was asked by Samuel Belzberg to coordinate the entire production, and he arranged for production work to begin at Quantum Leap Studios in Venice, California. One of our first tasks was to find two narrators, one for the historical portion and the other for the personal testimony. Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles were our first choices, because as recognizable personalities and voices, they would lend enormous credibility to Genocide.

Several other decisions were also made at this point in production. We concluded that the project merited an original score and that the Academy Award-winning composer Elmer Bernstein would be a natural choice. We also decided that the film should be introduced by Simon Wiesenthal at the Mauthausen concentration camp, where many members of his family were murdered. Wiesenthal, standing beneath the barbed wire fence of Mauthausen, would engage the conscience of the viewer.

When the script was complete, I flew to Washington, D.C., to ask United States Senator John Warner if he would show the script to his then wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Warner, a good friend of the Center, had worked closely with us on a number of social action issues; he promised he would take the script home to Elizabeth, but cautioned me against overoptimism. "You know stars; you can't tell which scripts they will accept. I'll call on Monday either way," Senator Warner promised.

On Monday, Warner called excitedly. "Rabbi, I've got both good and bad news. The good news is that Elizabeth will do it without remuneration. The bad news is you ruined my weekend-she Couldn't stop crying from Friday to Sunday night."

A week later, Elizabeth Taylor and I had lunch at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. A Greyhound bus driver spotted her coming in and alerted his bus load of tourists, who soon found the secluded window table where we were seated. When Elizabeth noticed them and turned around to wave, I told her that they did not come to see her, but that what attracted them was the sight of an Orthodox rabbi at the Polo Lounge! At this meeting, Elizabeth made it clear that this project was very special to her, since she regarded the Jewish people as her people, and wanted to identify personally with the tragedy of the Holocaust. She asked if we could record in London while she was filming Agatha Christie's The Mirror Cracked. She also asked if I could coach her in the correct Yiddish and Hebrew pronunciations that were part of her narration. We agreed to record in London in June with two days set aside for rehearsal.

By June, Orson Welles had also read the script and agreed to donate his services without remuneration. He felt It was a tribute to Jewish h istory and continuity. Welles, who is very fussy about scripts and a stickler for precise English usage, said that the Genocide script was the finest to cross his desk in a long time. He insisted on using his own studio to record, so that the Center could save any additional costs.

With Welles' narration completed, Schwartzman and I flew to London to record Elizabeth Taylor's segments. Elizabeth Taylor pronounced "Mir velen zei iberleben " ("We shall outlive them") like a Jewess from Warsaw, and her perfectly accented "Hazak F' Ainatz" ("Be Strong and Brave") drew compliments from Israel's ambassador to the United States. She was deeply moved during the recording of one of the stories. She wept and could not continue recording Leon Kahn's description of the murder of the residents of Elsiskes at the hands of their Ukrainian tormentors.

Elmer Bernstein recorded his score one week later with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Genocide thus moved into the final phase of production. The multimedia project was screened at Quantum Leap Studios in June, 1981. In addition to the trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, a group of distinguished members of the motion picture industry were present. The effect of the presentation was astounding. Fay Kanin, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said, "Rabbi, this should be transferred to film. Everyone should have the opportunity to see this." The more I considered her idea, the more convinced I became that Mrs. Kanin was right. By limiting ourselves to a multimedia format with multiple projectors and computers, we would restrict our audience outreach. If the presentation was powerful, then it deserved more exposure than museums and cultural institutions could provide for us.

With the help of a challenge grant from Atlantic Richfield Company, we moved rapidly to convert the multimedia into a 35mm film. A group from the Center, consisting of Marvin Segelman, Leslie Belzberg, Bob Jenkins, and Jeff Karoff, performed the herculean task of creating the film, which was completed in December, 1981. Three months later, on the evening of March 29, 1982, Genocide won an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature. An unbelievable dream had come true. As I walked up with Arnold Schwartzman to accept the Oscar, I thought of many people who helped me accomplish this: Samuel Belzberg, who had the courage and gave me the opportunity to create such an institution; Bill Belzberg, who opened so many doors for me; Esther Cohen, who devoted two-and-a half years of her life to the project; Alan Casden, who demonstrated such sound judgment and loyalty; Roland Arnall, the first person who helped me when I came to Los Angeles in 1977; the dedicated staff of the Center, especially my assistant Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Efraim Zuroff, the historical consultant on Genocide; and my dear wife, Marlene, and our children, Ari and Avi, who experienced with me both the anguish and the joy. As I received the Oscar, I thanked those people and the Board of Trustees, and Simon Wiesenthal, who all these years stood alone, and then I told the 360 million viewers, "Genocide is dedicated to the millions of victims of Hitler's Holocaust. They have no graves, but their memory will live on until the end of time."

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