Recently, Cinema Without Borders sat down with Polish filmmaker Marek Tomasz Pawlowski to talk about his heart-rending documentary THE TOUCH OF AN ANGEL that screened last week at the Polish Film Festival, LA, where it won the Hollywood Eagle Documentary Award.
THE TOUCH OF AN ANGEL tells the story of how Henryk Schönker and his family survived the holocaust. Specifically, how they survived being sent to Auschwitz, one of the most deadly camps set up during World War 2. The story is told by Schönker, who is now deaf and in the later years of his life. To find out what it took to capture such a beautiful but tragic story, we spoke with the director Market Tomasz Pawlowki.
Wyatt Phillips: How did you first come to hear Henryk Schönker’s story and what motivated you to tell it?
Marek Pawlowski: Henryk Schoenker lives in Israel. However, in 2005 he published in Poland his memoirs under the same title THE TOUCH OF AN ANGEL (by the way they will be published in English in the USA next year). I literally devoured the book and since then couldn’t stop thinking about it. Schoenker came to Poland to promote the book and we instantly became great friends. However, he was revealing a completely unknown and controversial history and nobody wanted to believe that at the start of the war there was an Emigration Office of Jews to Palestine in Oswiecim prior to the plans to establish Concentration Camp Auschwitz. And the establishment of this office was ordered by the Germans. World historians couldn’t comprehend this fact because it meant that the Germans had initially devised a slightly different operation plan for the Jews. I undertook steps to find proof that the story was true and after years of work of a team found it at Yad Washem and the originals are safely deposited in New York.
WP: Your choice to conduct interviews at the actual locations where events happened in Schönker’s life and then to shoot them so stylistically does well to visually embody how these moments have forever defined Schönker and in way trapped a part of him there, where did your inspiration to place the interviews at these locations come from?
MP: I always prepare exact documentation in my movies. This one was extremely complicated–the history takes place over six years in different cities–there were bunkers, attics, we went everywhere at the productions own discretion after paying the expertise. All interiors in the movie are authentic. Most of them collapsed after the shots as if they were waiting to be immortalized. The entire interview is conducted in his family house. When I saw the ruins of splendor past I knew this was the only possibility. Henryk’s imagination moved into the past and everything became clear in front of his eyes. He was running away from there as a child therefore it was difficult work.
WP: Was it difficult to relive Schönker’s memories on camera with him?
MP: Henryk wanted very much to record those memories but sometimes he couldn’t cope and was afraid to approach those places at all. I wasn’t forcing him. Henryk wanted to face the demons of his past of his own accord. The biggest difficulty was his complete deafness. He lost his hearing at Bergen-Belsen during the last days of the war. He had a personal assistant on the set who was writing down any questions or suggestions. Body language was also of importance here. A deaf person yells because he doesn’t hear his own voice. We were outright conducting him and Henryk was adapting perfectly. It has to be admitted that Henryk Schoenker is an exceptional witness of history, an outright actor. We shot the interview over 10 days in five cities and the outcome were 27 hours which had to be abridged to one hour. It was a battle for each word.
WP: Why was it important to you to include reenactments of Schönker’s family’s experience in your film?
MP: A contemporary viewer is already used to the evils of this world so the next recollection of an older person doesn’t make such an impression as before. My goal was to attract the attention of a young viewer and to keep it for one hour. Often I sit with the audience in a cinema and listen to its rhythm. I know when they are bored and how to steer the action. Therefore, I considered reenactments indispensable in such a long history. Of significance is the fact that there are no dialogues, they are short impressions. The entire real story is being told by a real witness. The scenes with actors and –here is an interesting tidbit–inhabitants of Oswiecim were acted out in authentic locations i.e. the town of Auschwitz. I also used here a new movie language which I called archicollage: together with graphic designer Robert Manowski we were creating archival pictures from fragments of authentic photographs and faces of actors who were shot on a green screen and had to resemble the characters from the story. Almost no photographs were left from that time and it is widely known that in need you have to come up with ideas.
WP: What did you want your audience to take with them after watching ‘Touch of an Angel’?
MP: When they see the film they will know themselves. With my movies I am asking myself and others–how would you behave in a similar situation? My movie shows that a human being can help another human being with the smallest gesture which sometimes saves a life and the savior might not even learn about it. From the historical point of view the matter is very serious–it shows that the Germans wanted to get rid of the Jews disposing of them by means of what they wanted to call emigration. Therefore, Eichmann met with our hero’s father in Berlin in November 1939. But the hundred thousand of people had to be accepted somewhere. The entire world was silent at that time which was accepted by the Germans as a consent to to go ahead with their actions. Evil has to be acted upon immediately because when we hold of it is always too late. We should react to evil around us and help each other as much as we can.