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In the early seventies, Haim Gouri, Jacques Ehrlich, and David Bergman embarked on a journey together whose end result was an epic trilogy about the Holocaust. The trio, with the support of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, were able to amass hundreds of hours’ worth of footage, and thousands of still images. This mammoth research project ended up becoming three feature-length films, made over a 13-year period: The 81st Blow, which chronicles Jewish life from the Nazis’ rise to power to the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto; The Last Sea, that begins right after the war and features the liberation of the camps and the survivors’ journey to Palestine – their trials and tribulations across a decimated Europe, their illegal migration to British Mandatory Palestine and the Cyprus internment camps; and Flames in Ashes (which, although third in the trilogy, is actually the middle one, chronologically) which focused on Jewish resistance in Europe during World War II, whilst also taking on a critical approach to the myth of Jews walking to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter.
In all three films, the fundamental narrative structure is chronological. The three creators’ main narrative decision was not to show the speakers’ faces, therefore only their voices are heard. The testimonials were taken from the recordings of Adolf Eichmann’s trial. The presiding notion behind the editing was to arrange the footage and still images in a way that created a world that would pull us into the characters as close as possible. As said, the characters – who are only ever heard, pop up every now and then, either with a personal recollection or some hindsight commentary on an experience they’d had in real-time. The creators were highly cognisant of the fact that the vast majority of footage was shot by the Germans and as such, they do make a point of stating that in the film. What is interesting is the way that they integrate the footage into the sequence of events and whether the German point of view is still present, or has it been subsumed by the film, thereby becoming the creators’ POV? A significant number of shots from part one of the trilogy (The 81st Blow) are taken from the same footage which Yael Hersonski would later base her film, A Film Unfinished, on.
It really was fascinating to watch the films which, it pains me to say, kind of went forgotten over the years. Online information about the production of the trilogy is scarce and so, with that in mind, I made my way to kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, the home of Jacqo (Jacques) Ehrlich – the sole surviving witness out of the three creators. Despite being well in his nineties, Jacqo answers the door all sprightly and leads me to his to his studio where, up until recently, he would regularly paint. “I’ve always painted” he told me whilst showing me one painting after the other, “until film came along and took out painting. And when film went away, painting made its comeback. Now, unfortunately, my health won’t let me paint anymore.”
Jacqo, when were you born?
And where did you spend the war?
Where in France were you?
JE: Where wasn’t I?!
And so begins the almost inconceivable story of the Ehrlichs’ trials and tribulations in occupied France, the abridged version of which I will now be sharing with you: “I was born in Strasbourg to a generations-old Alsatian family on my mother’s side, and an Ostjuden family on my father’s side. I was about eight-and-a-half years old, nine maybe when the war broke out. Strasbourg, which had a border with Germany, banished its entire Jewish population and the community ended up scattered all over France. My father, who was born in Poland, was a very wise man who immediately realised the great danger that lay ahead. He took us all – myself, my mother, and my siblings to the South of France and the Spanish border. This was about 1940-1941 – the beginning of our travels.
My parents were in the resistance and were trying to save Jews, and so we were constantly on the move throughout the whole war. Imagine a castle with 600-800 Jewish children who have no parents. No food, austerity, disease everywhere, and absolutely freezing conditions. And so, we kept moving from one place to the next. The resistance organisation my parents were with managed to smuggle groups of kids over to Switzerland which was how my brother and I ended up in a Swiss boarding school for Jewish refugee children. In the final year, my parents who were also wanted by the Germans, made it to Switzerland and we reunited. I was at nursery whilst they were put in the refugee camps. The Swiss weren’t terribly keen on refugees, so they put them to work.
And when did you arrive in Israel?
JE: It was 1949.
How did you go from refugee and immigrant to film editor?
JE: After the war, my brother passed away in Paris. I went over there with my wife and kids. My father had some kind of connection to the Lexes. Have you heard of the Lexes? Studio Saint-Louis in Paris? My father pulled some strings and I started working at the studio lab. At the time, my father got me this 8mm camera so I started shooting and editing all these films at the kibbutz – I had some experience. Pretty soon, because I’d been excelling at the lab, I was transferred to the special effects department. And what did I get up to there? Shooting animation, cinematography, caption editing for films and the news, and also special effects. My boss, like all the French at the time, didn’t speak a word of English – and so, I ended up being the contact person for all the US productions. We made lots and lots of films. The most famous one would have to be The Longest Day that won an Oscar for Special Effects. And who do you think Mr. SFX was?
And from there, how did you end up in editing?
JE: What do you think editing is? What exactly do you do in SFX, huh? You make film captions, you do all the effects, you make trailers. And how do you make a film trailer? You edit. We got back to Israel, and I started working. The first picture I worked on was Shimon Yisraeli’s The Cellar. And from that moment on, I started editing a whole bunch of films – Sallah (Ephraim Kishon), Three Days and a Child (Uri Zohar), The Boy Across the Street (Yosef Shalhin), Slow Down (Avraham Heffner), and lots more.
You were going from one film to the next. How did the trilogy even come about?
JE: Production of the trilogy all started with ‘Antek,’ [the nickname for] Yitzhak Zuckerman. He was the founder and director of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum. And at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, there was this utter saint of a woman who, on the sheer strength of her nagging, had managed to get her hands on films about the Holocaust from all over the world and bring them to the museum. She was given them all as a present. They had a vast collection of Holocaust films which they would show museumgoers. And so, Antek had this idea: instead of bringing over all these films, why not just make them into one film? He then called Haim Gouri over for a chat and to figure out ‘what we’re doing.’
Now, Guri is a poet who knows less than nothing about filmmaking and he tells him [Antek], “I need a director.” Where are we supposed to find a director? Then, Gouri reached out to David Bergman who, at the time was running Beit Zvi [school of the performing arts] and was actually a theatre director. Pretty soon, they realised they had a problem on their hands.”
Thereby making you the solution?
JE: David Bergman and I went to the same nursery in Switzerland during the war; that’s how we knew each other. One day, I was on the bus in Tel Aviv, holding onto the railing, and there’s someone holding onto the one just behind me and they’re looking right at me. ‘Oh – Jacqo! What have you been up to? You must come and teach editing at Beit Zvi.’ And that’s how I ended up teaching at Beit Zvi. And when Gouri was on the hunt for a director, he went to the person he knew, which was David Bergman, and David Bergman went to the person he knew, which was me. And that was that. That’s how the trilogy began with its three creators. One of whom is me.”
And what was the relationship like? How did the three of you work together?
JE: The Ghetto Fighters’ House had an office in Tel Aviv which they made available to us. But as the project got bigger and bigger, we rented a flat, brought in an editing suite and started working – Gouri, David, and myself.
So you have three people on board, two of whom haven’t got too much filmmaking experience under their belt. Surely lots of arguments ensue. How do you settle those?
JE: Well it is a problem. So sometimes, you just don’t. You do your thing and later, they’ll get to watch it. David was awfully busy as he was running Beit Zvi, so he usually wasn’t there when we had our meetings. That saved us a great deal of arguing. And indeed, by the time we were cutting Flames in the Ashes, part three of the trilogy, Gouri was already clued in. And David was no longer in the picture.”
If memory serves, Bergman’s name is also on the third film, is it not?
JE: Sometimes it is, but it’s a fluke. It’s a mistake.”
So, Flames in the Ashes, that’s just you and Gouri, is it?
JE: That’s right.
What was it like, working with Haim Gouri?
JE: Working with Gouri is [a rollercoaster of] mountains and hills. This is a man with a gargantuan ego. So much ego there, but also a whole lot of skill.”
Where is the archive from? How did you even get your hands on this insane collection of all those shots?
JE: First, we decided that we would make the film using all the footage we already had at Ghetto Fighters [house]. That was how we started The 81st Blow. Pretty soon, I realised how preposterous that was because those films that we had at Ghetto Fighters had all those scratches on them from the Ghetto Fighters’ projectors. They were in pretty bad shape. There were no negatives, there was nothing. So I took it upon myself to apply some pressure so that we could get some copies in better condition. We had a teleprinter and I started corresponding with archives all over the world. Including those behind the Iron Curtain.”
Who were the researchers?
JE: That would be me. We attended this [training] seminar. We were given a seminar at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum. It was all their Holocaust era experts, Zvi Shner and several others whose names, unfortunately, escape me. But they all gave us this really intensive months-long seminar.
Who’s ‘we’? Was it just you or was Gouri there too?
JE: It was Gouri and I. Gouri knew some of the details. He went through a lot in Europe, and also when he was covering the Eichmann trial. I also knew my share, as had many at the time. But our properly thorough education came from the museum’s researchers.
Take me through how you came up with the film’s structure.
JE: Already in the first film, The 81st Blow, we realised that the narrative would follow the chronology of the war. But how does one make a film out of that? Part of our learning curve was watching all the films. We watched a great deal of films and lots of footage, seeing as the Germans were avid documentarists. Like I said, Gouri who had been covering the Eichmann trial as a journalist got his hands on the recorded transcripts from the trial, and so we sat down and listened to them all. And suddenly, this light bulb went off; in Gouri’s, Bergman’s, and my head. We had all arrived at the same conclusion, having watched all these films, that we don’t wish to utter a single word in ours. That is to say, no voiceover narration. We neither wanted to narrate, nor to explain. The images ought to do their own talking. We were not going to be interviewing people who would recall how, “I was there, and they did so and so to me, and they didn’t do such and such,” and all that. We’ve seen these kinds of interviews and testimonials in all the other films, and it struck a sour note with us. Which was why, when we were listening to all the testimonies from the Eichmann trial that were given from a place of such dignity, emotion, and recognition of the trial’s historic magnitude, we realised that those testimonies had a different ring to them than your run of the mill interview.
We realised that we only wanted the audio from those court testimonies, even though we also had the visuals. We thought we could add the sound of the Eichmann trial testimonies to the images we were intending to use, which is how the method behind the shooting came about – testimonies without the witnesses, and authentic images. You must remember, Ran, that every last image is authentic; it’s all been checked and verified. It’s not like they do in other films where everything is spliced together, and you could be watching a tank driving past and it could be Russia or the Czech Republic for all you know. No. It was going to be nothing but authentic, documentative images. Genuine images corroborated by individuals’ testimonies at the Eichmann trial.
Do all three films follow the same MO?
JE: Yes, they do. The only place in the films where we gave ourselves, or our poet, the right to say anything was in the songs. Gouri wrote the lyrics which Yossi Mar Chaim then composed. We used them as a form of testimony or voiceover narration if you will. But ultimately, it is just a song, that’s all.
How many years in total did you spend working on this?
JE: Over 15 years.
That is a lot.
Well it wasn’t every day, but we did spend a hell of a lot of time working on it. We weren’t keeping count or anything. There was, however, one condition to follow: anyone working on the film would earn the same wages as Gouri’s in the paper. At the time I was making, what was it… a couple of hundred for a week’s worth of editing. Exactly the same salary Gouri was on.
I’d like to know how come the films weren’t released in chronological order. First, there was The 81st Blow that came out in 1974. Then, in 1979, came The Last Sea about the post war period. While part three, Flames in the Ashes, about the ghetto uprisings only came out in 1985.
JE: That’s because Flames in the Ashes was the one we had the least footage for. We pushed it back on purpose, to allow ourselves more time, whilst working on the other two, to carry on looking for the rare footage.
Could you tell me a bit about the reception that the films had?
JE: You want to know how well-received the films were? Who am I to toot my own horn?
Well there isn’t much choice, is there? There’s no one else left to do the tooting, so toot away.
JE: I honestly don’t know. You see, I wasn’t keeping up with the screenings.
But the film did make it all the way to the Oscars.
JE: It did indeed. But much to our regret, when the exciting invitation arrived to go to Hollywood and attend the Oscars as the creators of The 81st Blow – one of the final five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, those tight-fisted scrooges at the kibbutz, kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, wouldn’t pay for the trip.
So they said no, did they? And you didn’t go?
JE: No, we did not. [Chaim] Topol later told us that we were just two votes shy of winning the Oscar. He was already in Hollywood at the time, and a member of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. I’ll never forget this: he told me, “If you had been present there and then, you would have won the Oscar.” But those cheapskates at Lohamei Hagetaot, they couldn’t see how going to Hollywood with the film was also just as important for the museum [Ghetto Fighters’ House].
Looking at your long and exhaustive career, what place would you say the trilogy takes up on the whole?
JE: An immensely important place. Invaluably, emotionally important; far more than anything else I have ever done. More important to me than all the other stuff. It was a tremendous experience for me, and for many others. To give you a sense of the sheer intensity of the emotions involved, we were keen on getting a poster done for The 81st Blow. And Haim Gouri, who always had his own ways, got a graphic designer in who then asked me to show him a bit of the film. Gouri chose the most moving, most difficult parts which I then edited. The graphic designer then arrived. He sat down and watched what we’d put together. Three days later I get a call from him, and he tells me, “Ever since I watched this film, I can’t get it up. I can’t sleep anymore. You’re going to have to find someone else, because I’m not doing it.” Gouri’s way was to hit you hard. To shock you.
Of the three, which do you consider to be the most artistically wholesome film?
JE: The first and the third. The first one because we’d put so much work and so much thought into it until we finally found our way. We poured our guts out into it, but it paid off, opened a lot of doors, and made making the other two that much easier. And the third, because that’s the one we made with the least amount of materials to work with, and I reckon it came out the best of the lot. There was no footage because who would have been around to film the resistance, huh? Who films underground resistance activities? We had to be very clever indeed in how we used what little footage we did have and pull it off. Which is why, like with all difficult things, when you have to put in that much more effort and go the extra mile, you also end up getting more than your money’s worth.
After 15 years of gruelling work on the trilogy, what came next for you?
JE: After that, I was fed up with Israeli film [industry]. Because in Israeli film they’ll give you a pat on the back, tell you, ‘Come on then, work with me!’ – and later, when it’s time to pay, suddenly there’s no money and they won’t pay up. You have to spend two years chasing someone up for a couple of hundred shekels. I decided to leave and went to work for German television. Steady work, steady paycheque, fixed benefits.
Your parents, did they like the trilogy?
JE: We didn’t talk about it. We never talked about the war. Not a word. Look, what they went through during the war was just awful – they were both in the resistance. They tried to save their families but despite everything, my mother’s whole family still ended up in Auschwitz.
Do you regret not talking to them about those days?
JE: No regrets. I had respect for my mother and father. I went through all of it with them, but from a child’s point of view. I was just a tiny cog in the story. Just to give you an idea of what life was like back then in the South of France: we lived in this town called Chambéry, and the house where we lived, we’d have all these members of the Zionist movement and the resistance organisation my parents were with calling in on us. There could be some resistance fighters passing through town for the night, and where do you think they slept? At ours. My brother and I would sleep in our parents’ bed; my parents would sit in the front room with our guests, and at night the guests would sleep in our bed.
One night, we had this guy stay over who I knew was with the resistance. He was sleeping in my bed, and my brother and I were sleeping with our parents. The next day, I was walking to school, and I was coming up to this roundabout when this black car, one of those black Gestapo Citroens raced into the roundabout all the way to the other side. The Citroen door then opens and who do I see flung out of the car? The man who’d slept in my bed the night before. He saw me, looked at me, and gave me this hand gesture that meant ‘keep quiet’ as he ran off and disappeared past the street corner. That was my childhood. And this is why for me, the trilogy was the height of my career.
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