Treasure Lena Dunham
Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in Treasure, Bleecker Street

Before Treasure writer-director Julia von Heinz got her script in front of Lena Dunham, she was often asked: “Do we really need another Holocaust film?”

But those questions stopped coming after the Girls and Sharp Stick writer, director and actress came aboard.

Based on the 1999 novel Too Many Men by Lily Brett, Treasure is set in the early 1990s. Out in theaters Friday, it follows Dunham as Ruth, an American journalist who goes on a trip to her father Edek’s (Stephen Fry) homeland of Poland. As a Holocaust survivor, Edek struggles to confront his past, constantly sabotaging the trip in funny situations as Ruth urges him to revisit sometimes painful childhood memories. The dramedy mixes darkness with moments of levity.

“During the financing process, the script was quite good, developed already. I often heard some voices who said, ‘Could this be old fashioned? Aren’t we over it? Do we really need another Holocaust film when we already have thousands of them?’ And oh, this made it very difficult for me,” Von Heinz tells MovieMaker.

But then she came across Dunham’s social media, and a light bulb moment hit her.

How Treasure Writer-Director Julia von Heinz Found Lena Dunham

“There was a moment in the Berlin subway when I scrolled through Lena’s Instagram as a fangirl, and I thought, she is Ruth,” she says. “She’s representing the New York subculture. She’s open about her mental health like Ruth is and Lily is with all her characters. No one will ask me if this could be old fashioned with Lena as Ruth. And that was true. Once she was attached, that was never again a question.”

A German filmmaker, Von Heinz approaches the story from the perspective of her own Jewish ancestry: her grandfather survived the Holocaust. She wanted to adapt Brett’s novel because her mother had read it book in the ’90s and saw herself in Ruth.

“She totally identified with that Ruth character. Her father, who was half-Jewish, had survived the Holocaust in Germany, lived under the aggressors through the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, never talked about it — felt ashamed,” Von Heinz says.

Dunham is also of Jewish descent. She recently revealed during an appearance on PBS’ Finding Your Roots that she had one relative who died in the Holocaust and multiple who survived.

“I knew my family were Eastern European Jews. I knew just by dint of what it means to be an Eastern European Jew that a connection had to exist. But it was something — much like the way that Edek does not want to talk to Ruth about his past — I was always the child asking questions. I remember from the time I read Anne Frank’s diary when I must have been seven years old asking my grandmother questions that she just did not want to answer,” she says.

“So that created a real connection to the script for me, even before I understood the specifics. And I thought that Julia had captured that generational divide so beautifully.”

Also Read: Sharp Stick Prompted Lena Dunham to Re-Examine The Way She Thinks About Porn

The way Von Heinz and Dunham ultimately came together is a funny story. Von Heinz was at the Venice Film Festival, where her political drama film And Tomorrow the Entire World was premiering, when she had a chance to shout Dunham out.

“When I was in Venice, I was asked by Variety, ‘what’s your next project?’ And I just dared to say it. I said, ‘I have a script here, and I wish Lena Dunham would be in it. And please put it in the headline,’ I said to the journalist, ‘because she might read it.'”

Dunham did. Her agent sent her the headline, and she was pleasantly surprised to be offered a role like Ruth.

“I already couldn’t believe that such a cool filmmaker was saying this, because while people may think of me for different things, the lead in a period-specific film about this subject is probably not one of them,” she syas. “But then I watched And Tomorrow the Entire World and I was awestruck,” she says.

“I just thought — my thing is always, ‘Do I want to play this part, and do I want to learn from this filmmaker?’ and I’m going to be honest, one of the reasons I started writing for myself is because from my youngest age, I always felt like, well, there aren’t going to be the kinds of parts that interest me that are full bodied and truthful about what it is to be a woman.”

She adds: “Even to this day — while, I occasionally get to do incredible things and I have no complaints — when I’m being offered a part by someone else, it’s very often like, ‘it’s the sassy friend and she loves to stay behind at the buffet’ or whatever. And you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s not really a very fully realized depiction of modern femininity and also is boring.'”

After falling in love with And Tomorrow the Entire World, Dunham was all ears about boarding Treasure.

“We met, and I just felt such a deep desire to follow her wherever she was going. And every part of that process has been gratifying. I don’t know if I’ve even ever I’ve tried to express to her, but the gift that she gave me by letting me play this character, by letting me have this experience, by letting me be in this process with her and Stephen has been so important and really changed my life,” Dunahm says.

“It was always a dream of mine when I was studying European filmmakers in college to know what it was like to be a part of a European filmmaking experience. And it exceeded my wildest dreams in terms of a sense of purposefulness, and specificity and artistic integrity.”

Treasure is now playing in theaters.

Main Image: Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in Treasure, Bleecker Street