One of the great horrors of human history, the Holocaust is the title of millions of interlocking stories that span tragedy to comedy, despair to hope. The delivery of a battered suitcase from the Auschwitz Museum to director Fumiko Ishioka of Tokyo’s Holocaust Education Resource Center marked the beginning of one of those stories. Ishioka, along with a group of young Japanese students, made it her mission to unearth the fate of the little girl whose name was painted across the suitcase front: Hana Brady. Ishioka’s search for Hana’s identity, and the story she discovered—of a young Jewish girl growing up with her brother in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia—is the subject of Larry Weinstein’s documentary Inside Hana’s Suitcase.
Using the words of her brother George and narration from children so much like Hana herself, Weinstein tells a story that spans Hana’s joyful early years to her eventual murder in Auschwitz. Despite the film’s premise, the story it tells is one of hope, of triumph over the past and the mysterious workings of a world we must be strong enough to love.
Weinstein took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his inspiration for the film and some of the serendipitous events that lined its path to the big screen.
Laurel Dammann (MM): You have stated that, before Inside Hana’s Suitcase, the Holocaust was not a topic you wanted to focus on in film. What was it about Hana’s story that changed your mind?
Larry Weinstein (LW): First I want to mention that before I made Inside Hana’s Suitcase, all of my films were about music—mostly feature-length documentaries about composers. They were films on Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo, Dmitri Shostakovich, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill. Most were biographies that featured those amazing personalities within the context of their time, and many of them dealt with the grim realities of WWI, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the Siege of Leningrad and so on. In 2005 I directed a film based on the book Beethoven’s Hair, which traced the remarkable journey of a lock of the composer’s hair from [his] death in 1827 to the present. One of the dominant stories in that film revolved around certain harrowing events related to the Holocaust. So it’s not as if I have avoided such topics altogether.
But when I was approached with the idea of making a film on the newly released Holocaust-themed book Hana’s Suitcase, I thought that I would pass on it. These films often take five or more years to make, and I wasn’t sure I was really willing to bury myself in such a dark subject. This is a book about a little girl who died in Auschwitz—a devastating subject. I have two daughters myself—it seemed too much.
But when I put these preconceptions aside and finally read Hana’s Suitcase, I changed my mind. The book is written for young people—it takes perhaps an hour to read. It’s a little book that elicits huge emotions, and the fascinating twists within the story are something of a miracle. Ultimately it’s not about the darkness one would expect, but [rather] something very positive and life-affirming. Through its two remarkable protagonists, George Brady (brother of Hana and himself an Auschwitz survivor) and Fumiko Ishioka (a Japanese educator who began this “search” for Hana), it becomes a story about the necessity for hope, tolerance and the lessons that must be learned and passed on.
These are the things that attracted me. They’re the reasons that I wanted to make this film.
MM: Hana Brady’s story is one that initially came to light through an extraordinary stroke of chance. Were there any surprising twists that came about while filming?
LW: George Brady often speaks of his life in relation to the endless number of coincidences that seem to follow him (or are generated by him) every day. It is the aspect of his life that makes him wonder if there is a higher presence, as someone who grew up in a family that was entirely secular. And I don’t really want to give away the plot of the film, but the circuitous route by which a suitcase with the name of a little girl painted on it led a determined woman in Japan to this Czech man living in Canada is really something incredible.
But there was another coincidence worth mentioning that happened as we were readying to shoot our film. In Brno, Czech Republic, on a wet, snowy December day, a young man named Thomas Pavlovsky noticed a large garbage dumpster on a residential street that was overflowing with old children’s books. Since his mother taught children’s literature at Brno University, he decided to climb into the dumpster to retrieve anything that looked interesting. In the midst of the snow-covered books that he started to gather, he saw a batch of other curious-looking items and rescued them as well. He ended up bringing three full crates to his mother, Marie, and laid everything out on the floor so they would dry. It fascinated them that all the books were from the late ’30s and early ’40s. More interesting was that on some of these artifacts they saw, hand-written: “George Brady” and “Terezin.” There were also references to “Hana Brady,” but Thomas and Marie had no idea who George and Hana were or how to find out if they were still alive. By chance, a few days later Marie came upon a review of the Czech edition of Hana’s Suitcase, which spoke of “their” Hana and George. She contacted the Jewish Museum in Prague, who led them to a well-known Czech priest/scholar who specialized in the period. Incredibly, Father Daniel Herman knew George Brady’s contact information, as it turned out that Father Herman is the son of George’s cousin!
The Pavlovskys sent to George’s Toronto address a package, which contained George’s own weather-beaten diary that he had kept from his first days in Terezin to his last—a diary that he had forgotten that he had written. It also contained items from Hana, as well as a family photo that included George’s mother. The package arrived at George’s home on his birthday! George says this is typical of the serendipity that seems to infuse his life. When we shot our reenactments of the boys’ room in Terezin, George came to every shoot—and we were guided by George’s own diary descriptions to get it right.
Concerning other “twists,” there was a major discovery during the process of making the film that might have sabotaged the entire project. I won’t reveal this now, but we deal with it in a kind of epilogue in the film, and despite our initial reticence to include this story, for many audiences it has as much power as anything in the film.
MM: Children narrate throughout the documentary, actively participating in the retelling of history. What do you see as the role of the child in this film? As an audience member?
LW: Like the book, the film is largely geared towards young people and has been used extensively in schools in Canada. When the film was released theatrically in Canada, many busloads of children were brought to packed cinemas, and it was great for George Brady and I to be part of the endless Q&A sessions. We personally experienced the same thing in China, Switzerland, Scotland, Australia [and] cities in the U.S., where we were brought to large assemblies in schools or the children were brought to cinemas. Sometimes we were accompanied by Fumiko and [George’s daughter] Lara Hana. The largest assembly was 2,500 school kids in Macau, most of whom had never heard of the Holocaust.
Karen Levine, the author of the book Hana’s Suitcase, originally decided to write it for children. She imagined the readership being primarily ages nine to 13, which was the age that Hana was throughout this phase of her life (and death). It also was the age range of the young students, called “Small Wings,” that Fumiko Ishioka assembled in Tokyo to learn of the Holocaust. And it was these children who inspired Fumiko to search for the identity of Hana, though no one would have predicted the doggedness and determination with which she would carry out her mission.
When confronted with the idea of making the film, my writing partner Thomas Wallner and I decided to add one more element of the “children’s voice” to the film: They would become omniscient narrators. It’s a strange technique that we had not seen in other films. But we thought it seemed an entirely appropriate technique for this film, and we extended the idea to children in Canada, Japan and the Czech Republic—the three places where the story takes place.
The reason we did this derived from something very beautiful. After the book first came out, George and Fumiko (and also Hana, posthumously) started receiving letters from children about the effect of the book on them personally. Very quickly these grew to an avalanche of letters—George and his daughter Lara showed Thomas Wallner and I 5,000 of them relatively early on. As we made our way through these letters and passed from “Aren’t these cute” to “How moving, how profound” to genuine tears at some of things that they related about their own lives, we had that “Eureka!” moment where we imagined engaging these young people to tell the story of the film. I just saw a negative reference in The Christian Science Monitor about the children being “overly rehearsed,” which struck me as being funny because audience members have also asked us if the kids were scripted. They were certainly not. They just happened to know the story very well and had internalized it. Most had read the book, some had seen a play based on the book, some had met George and Lara Brady or Fumiko, but their answers were very spontaneous. Children are just a lot smarter than adults—they also feel things very deeply.
MM: In telling Hana’s story, you utilized a variety of different styles, including animation, reenactment and historical footage. What was behind the decision to structure the film this way? What did you seek to evoke with each of the different styles you used?
LW: Personally, I love hybrid documentary/dramatic films, if they work. I also love pure verité/direct cinema. I believe in the purity of documentary technique. But that is a very subjective concept, since there is no such thing as true objectivity or “the truth”—believing that such a thing exists is a trap that journalists often seem to fall into. I have been helping oversee a new documentary course in Toronto co-sponsored by the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) and the National Film Board of Canada (the NFB), and we bring many brilliant documentary directors to the program who deal with every genre of documentary. It’s something very inspirational and makes one proud to be associated with such a varied and wide-ranging form of filmmaking.
For me, all such discussion goes out the window with each film subject that one encounters as a director. I’ve never been so pedantic as to stubbornly stick with one style from film to film—I don’t care about my own “signature.” Each film should have its own set of aesthetics based on or inspired by its subject. All of this to say that I knew that, like the book that inspired the film, we would be flitting between two or three stories: The George and Hana story in the ’30s and ’40s and the modern-day Japanese story, as well as George’s Canadian story. We knew that we would be filming very harrowing scenes, such as those in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, but that at the same time this was a film aimed largely at a very young audience and that we would want to make the subject somehow accessible to them.
The animation was something very organic to the story: [It was] based on Hana’s own drawings, [which] Fumiko discovered. It was as if Fumiko was trying to imagine what Hana was imagining when she drew them. Later on, when Fumiko arrives at the place where Hana actually created these images, they reappear, as if she has somehow conjured Hana’s spirit.
We do use a rather large palette of techniques: Full out reenactments, real archival footage, faux-archival footage and old Czech narrative movies as documentary reenactments. We do recreations of things that had happened recently, as well as extensive use of photos, animated photos, all those interviews with children and adults and, finally, some pure and unadulterated verité footage.
And, to be entirely truthful, I was very insecure as to whether this would all work when edited together, but I was wagering with myself that the story was so strong, the children so earnest in their storytelling and Fumiko and George and many of the other “characters” that we meet so full of integrity and power that this would work. I did my best to mess it up with the mélange of techniques, but I think it all comes off in the end.
MM: Looking at Inside Hana’s Suitcase as a completed film, what are you most happy with?
LW: That’s easy. It was the opportunity to meet and get to know George Brady and his family, as well as Fumiko Ishioka. We’ve traveled with the film a lot together, and it has been a highlight of my life—a true privilege and honor.
As far as the film goes…. Well, more than any of my films, I set out to make this one for an audience, because of the importance of its message. So when I see audiences reacting as they do (it’s won many audience awards), I am very gratified. Especially when I see how they respond to George and Fumiko. I’ve been to screenings where George came up for [the] Q&A [and] there were no less than five standing ovations for him. It’s very sweet and moving. I think it may have an adverse effect though—George seems mildly disappointed when he walks into a room now without his mere presence eliciting a standing ovation. Even when only his wife or daughter are in the room.
MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
LW: Well, I have to say that I’m personally thrilled that the film is opening in New York. My family is all from there, though I was born in Toronto, and I always felt to a certain extent that I’m coming home whenever I come back to New York—despite my nasty cousins who insisted that we Canadians all live in igloos. But in a way I feel that I’ve often made films—especially my music films—for the erudite audiences of that city. I eagerly await the New York retrospective of my music films. Especially since my daughter, Dania, is now living in the East Village.
Anyway, I’ll be there for the opening of Inside Hana’s Suitcase, so hopefully I’ll get to satisfy my yen for the place and for the people. Ah, New Yorkers!
Inside Hana’s Suitcase opens tomorrow, April 18th, at the Quad Cinema in New York City and at the Kew Gardens Cinemas in Kew Gardens, New York and the Malverne Cinema 4 in Malverne, New York on April 20th. To find out more about the film, visit www.menemshafilms.com/inside-hanas-suitcase.html; for more on Hana’s story, visit the Brady family’s Website at www.hanassuitcase.ca.