Dr. Seuss meets the Holocaust in student-made film

Dr. Seuss meets the Holocaust in student-made film

With a $1,700 budget, young filmmakers mesh storybook narration and a child’s perspective in new short 'Wallace Seeks Solace'

Production photo for 'Wallace Seeks Solace' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Production photo for 'Wallace Seeks Solace' (photo credit: Courtesy)

Dr. Seuss isn’t a narrative form typically associated with the Holocaust, but a group of students in Boston channeled the iconic children’s book author for their recently wrapped film.

Poster advertising for volunteers. (photo credit: courtesy)
Poster advertising for volunteers. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“Wallace Seeks Solace” is a five-minute, live-action short about 11-year-old Wallace’s experience in the Holocaust. Dr. Seuss-style narration and dialogue portray the Jewish boy’s journey from innocence into a world of Nazi brutality.

The story begins in Poland, with Wallace in bed as Nazis conspire to deport the town’s Jews.

“In his blue bumpy bed, some people say, if one closed their eyes, the demons would just go away,” says a narrator. “For Wallace understood. For just as long as he could. Until that damn dreadful day. He was taken away.”

As in other coming-of-age stories, Wallace’s world is shattered by reality’s intrusion into his warm bedroom.

“Who were those grimy goons in green? And why were they there? They said they were taking Wallace somewhere,” the narrator says. “Far beyond where the lively leaves lived. They packed them like cattle. This is hard to forgive.”

Wallace is deported with his family and neighbors in a cattle car, destination unknown.

When the train doors swing open, he is greeted by Nazi guards barking orders to undress, delouse and get to work digging. The boy’s hair is removed and he tussles to find space in rancid adult barracks.

Using storybook narration and a child’s Holocaust perspective was the vision of Emerson College sophomore Zack Bernstein, “Wallace” writer and producer. Shot in black-and-white during four days in March, the film is a “composite” of several genres Bernstein favors.

“The way we tell the story compliments the visuals we created,” Bernstein said. “We built our sets to create a child’s version of hyper-reality. An example of this is a nine-story bunk bed in the concentration camp.”

Not all reactions to “Wallace” have been positive or encouraging, Bernstein said. Some students and faculty members questioned the filmmakers’ ability to portray the Holocaust in a five-minute short — especially using Dr. Seuss-style narration.

‘A topic like the Holocaust is seen as too ambitious for students to handle. And some people don’t like our approach’

“People don’t think we can pull it off,” said Bernstein. “A topic like the Holocaust is seen as too ambitious for students to handle. And some people don’t like our approach.”

Bernstein’s approach has both victims and perpetrators speaking in rhyme, even during scenes depicting brutality. He hopes the contrast between Dr. Seuss narration and the Holocaust will engage viewers more familiar with traditional, full-length Holocaust features.

“Sit your ass back down,” a Nazi guard screams at Wallace. “You dirty Jews. Rats are supposed to be on the floor. This shouldn’t be news!”

Working with a modest budget of $1,700, “Wallace” creators enlisted 30 student volunteers to dress sets, act as extras and handle logistics. One student’s family loaned the production authentic World War II-era weapons and Nazi insignia, and another scored the film.

Filming in the woods opposite Harvard for 'Wallace Seeks Solace.' (photo credit: courtesy)
Filming in the woods opposite Harvard for ‘Wallace Seeks Solace.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

Not all was quiet on the set when swastika-clad actors playing Nazi camp guards were filmed on location in a park close to Harvard University.

“We had to calm some people down who passed by the park and saw actors dressed as Nazis,” said Chris Macken, the film’s 19-year-old director. “One person ripped the Nazi armband off an actor and others yelled at us. Once we explained what we were working on, people calmed down.”

‘We had to calm some people down who passed by the park and saw actors dressed as Nazis’

Macken hopes “Wallace” viewers will feel a similar jolt during the Dr. Seuss-Holocaust mashup he made to complete Emerson’s Film II course this semester.

“I want people to be wowed by the film,” said Macken. “We hope that seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a child will help people of all ages relate to the subject matter.”

Along with intense subject matter, Macken identified the challenge of directing an 11-year old actor — Matt Keilty — in the lead role. Macken said he admires director Wes Anderson for his portrayals of children struggling in broken family settings.

Both Macken and Bernstein cite “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Life Is Beautiful” as Holocaust films they sought to emulate in creating “Wallace.” Young boys surrounded by playacting and escapism define both films.

Though he was born after the release of “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Bernstein studied filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s process in making the Holocaust drama and applied lessons to his own set.

“I know that Spielberg put Robin Williams on speaker-phone during shooting breaks to perform stand-up and help people cope with the serious material,” Bernstein said. “We also took joke breaks on our set, which really helped during 14-hour shooting days in the cold woods.”

To foster a more serious atmosphere, Bernstein played the haunting “Schindler’s List” soundtrack between takes.

For reasons of scope and budget, few student filmmakers tackle projects related to the Holocaust, said Bernstein. The student director’s largest project to date was “Approaching Normal,” his feature film about a dysfunctional Jewish family.

Everything for “Wallace” was done on the cheap — or for free — and students dipped into their own pockets — and their parents’ — to fund post-production. After Bernstein and Macken started promoting the project in January, online donations helped fill the gap.

Concept art for short film, 'Wallace Seeks Solace.' (photo credit: courtesy)
Concept art for short film, ‘Wallace Seeks Solace.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

To encourage students to make Holocaust-related short films, the Steven Spielberg-created USC Shoah Foundation allows them use of video-taped survivor testimonies as source material. An annual “Student Voices” competition recognizes shorts based on themes like “Discrimination and Violence” and “Responses to Genocide.” Few students submit live-action shorts like “Wallace,” though most make use of archival photos, survivor interviews or animation to depict the Holocaust and its aftermath. In the animated short “Strange Inheritance,” a ghoul-like prisoner lumbers through a death camp as survivor voices describe camp conditions.

Student filmmakers have much to learn by “taking the risk” of producing a Holocaust movie, said Bernstein.

“My larger goal is to make a full-length Holocaust film in Poland,” Bernstein said. “I want to focus on one town or ghetto and show what happened through them. I am hoping this five-minute story will help me get to an even bigger and more challenging project.”

Audiences will weigh in on “Wallace Seeks Solace” during the weeks ahead, when the film is screened in Boston and entered into national competitions.

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