Writer-director Finn Taylor filmed part of his Holocaust drama Avenue of the Giants at site of a real concentration camp called Terezín in the Czech Republic.
The film tells the true story of Herbert Heller, a Holocaust survivor who kept his past a secret from his family for decades until he finally decided to share his story publicly in 2004.
Taylor knew that in order to do justice to Heller’s life story, he had to write the screenplay as honestly as possible regarding the atrocities that took place in the camps.
Avenue of the Giants Director Finn Taylor on Making Avenue of the Giants
“We went to Auschwitz to be there to experience it. It totally changed the way I wrote the script,” Taylor said at a Q&A following a screening of Avenue of the Giants at the first annual Jackson Hole International Film Festival over the weekend.
Filming is not allowed at the real Auschwitz site, so Taylor recreated Auschwitz on a film set. But they were able to shoot at Terezín, one of the few Nazi concentration camps that was not explicitly used for extermination. Instead, it was made to look relatively more comfortable in order to hide the true nature of the camps from visiting inspectors from the International Red Cross and the Danish Government, according to the Terezín historical website.
Terezín is where Heller and his family were held before they were moved to Auschwitz.
“We actually did shoot at Terezín, which was very haunting. And even though it’s true it was a show camp, 30,000 people were murdered there, so it’s not like it was a nice place by any means,” Taylor said.
“A lot of it was there, Terezín, the way it was. The bunks, the rooms, I call them cells. There were no gardens there now, so our production design team created all these gardens,” Taylor says.
“Auschwitz, we pretty much created from scratch. It was a massive undertaking. The train tracks were there, and then everything else was built.”
Avenue of the Giants stars AVATAR‘s Stephen Lang as Herbert and Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher as Abbey, a troubled teen who shares her own painful secret with Herbert and encourages him to open up about his experience in the camps.
In flashbacks, Heller tells his story to Abbey, describing how he and his family were sent to Auschwitz when he was 12, what he experienced there, and how he escaped from the camps at 15 years old during the infamous Death March from Auschwitz in 1945.
“The entire story, the thing that gave me pause was the immense responsibility of doing it. But after knowing Herbert so well, I saw it was important to tell his story. Anybody who’s been to Auschwitz can tell you it’s not something you ever take lightly,” Taylor says.
“It will affect you and live in your bones. And it made me realize I couldn’t pull punches in telling the story. I wanted to do it, not with lots of blood or anything like that, but when I learned of the things that happened, I had to include them.”
You can watch Heller’s real interview about his experience in the camps on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website here. Find out more about Avenue of the Giants on the film’s website here.
Main Image: Elsie Fisher and Stephen Lang in Avenue of the Giants.