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Interview'It is a remembrance of my family members who were so cruelly murdered, and in that lies a warning for the future about the perils of racism'

Film scored by Eric Clapton depicts child of survivors’ three days in Auschwitz

Filmmaker Philippe Mora talks about his three visits to his mother’s ‘hell,’ which he documented with help from his longtime musician friend who co-produced

Philippe Mora filming 'German Sons' 2010 (courtesy of 3 Days in Auschwitz)
Philippe Mora filming 'German Sons' 2010 (courtesy of 3 Days in Auschwitz)

Shortly before World War II came to a close in the spring of 1945, Eric Clapton was born. More than 71 years later, the rock legend has composed a score that revisits that tragic time in history.

The music serves as the soundtrack for a very personal documentary film co-produced by Clapton’s longtime friend, acclaimed French-Australian director Phillipe Mora.

Clapton, friends with Mora since 1967, also co-produced the film, entitled “Three Days in Auschwitz,” which revisits the fate of Mora’s family during the Holocaust. The film debuted in the UK last week. It will also appear at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland on July 24.

The soundtrack, which is contemplative and melodic, accompanies both black and white still images from the Shoah period as well as contemporary images shot in color — including many shots of the infamous barbed wire surrounding the extermination camp, and a collection of haunting images illustrated by Mora, a married father of three.

Subtitled “Cinematic Notes for my Grandchildren,” Mora narrates these words in a voice over: “We’re here to commemorate the people who died here.”

Born to a Romanian mother and Lithuanian father in Paris in 1949, Mora, whose family name used to be Morawski, has had many relatives murdered by the Nazis. And, as is true for survivor families, the aftermath of the Shoah had a lasting psychological impact.

Mora’s father, a well-known art dealer, connoisseur and restaurateur, died in 1992. His mother, Mirka nee Zelik, became known in her new adopted home of Australia as an artist.

She remains recognized for what Mora describes as “beautiful images of wide-eyed children.” Later in her life, she told Mora those faces were of children who had looked at her when she escaped a war-time camp in France.

The film is just as gripping. As the camera focuses on the iconic Auschwitz fence, Mora asks, “Can you imagine what it was like at night here? These horrible lights. Electrified fences. Guards and dogs.”

Philippe Mora with friend and artistic partner Eric Clapton in 1968. Mora and Clapton have worked on several films together, most recently ‘Three Days in Auschwitz’ (courtesy)
Philippe Mora with friend and artistic partner Eric Clapton in 1968. Mora and Clapton have worked on several films together, most recently ‘Three Days in Auschwitz’ (courtesy)

This is not the first time film buff Clapton and Mora have collaborated.

The celebrated guitarist produced the director’s first film, “Trouble in Molopolis,” in 1969. Two decades later, the guitarist composed tracks for “Communion,” an alien encounter pic starring Christopher Walken and Lindsey Crouse. Clapton, who has toured Poland, has played two live concerts in Oswiecim, the town partially-razed by Germany which housed the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.

Mora’s future projects include a look at Sir John Monash, a legendary Australian-Jewish military commander during World War I whose story remains largely unknown. Monash developed the blitzkrieg strategy, smashing through the German lines and helping bring about the war’s end.

Mora spoke more about filmmaking, the Shoah, and his motivations in making “3DA,” as it has come to be called, in this interview with The Times of Israel.

Why did you decide to make this film?

After my third visit to Auschwitz and finding out more and more details on my family I was compelled to start making a film about the experience and the many questions Auschwitz still raises. These issues cannot be resolved with one humble film, so there are many more films, books and studies to be done. I went a fourth time last year and they had opened up the guard tower for the public over the infamous entrance. You clearly could see the enormous scale of the operation.

Filmmaker Philippe Mora beneath the infamous entrance to Auschwitz, 2011. The film 'Three Days in Auschwitz' is about three visits Mora made to the camp (courtesy)
Filmmaker Philippe Mora beneath the infamous entrance to Auschwitz, 2011. The film ‘Three Days in Auschwitz’ is about three visits Mora made to the camp (courtesy)

What does this film represent to you and what did you struggle with while making it?

It is a remembrance of my family members who were so cruelly murdered, and in that lies a warning for the future about the perils of racism.

I struggled with the meaning of the Shoah and still do, particularly the religious implications. My parents were atheists, not least because of the experience of living through genocidal Nazi times. As many victims and survivors asked: Where was God?

What do you consider the strengths of the film?

My opinion is that no matter what one’s training or background one cannot be “objective” about the Shoah, so there is strength in personal stories, even those of the “second generation.”

A painting, 'Auschwitz Why?' by artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora. The director's art also plays a major role in the film 'Three Days in Auschwitz' (courtesy)
A painting, ‘Auschwitz Why?’ by artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora. The director’s art also plays a major role in the film ‘Three Days in Auschwitz’ (courtesy)

How did Eric Clapton get involved?

We are old friends and young artists who lived together with artist Martin Sharp in a creatively catalytic studio, the Pheasantry [artist’s colony], in the late 1960s in London. Eric saw this project when I was crowd funding in its initial stages and became involved. He had previously done concerts in Oswiecim [the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz], but had not visited the camps.

Why is Clapton not conducting press interviews?

He might, but after half a century of press I think he understandably has some media fatigue. On the other hand, he has done more than enough for the film with, in my opinion, [composing] a score of genius on a most difficult subject, and key help as a producer, as well.

Cover of Charlotte Morawski's thesis from Breslau University, which can be found in libraries all over the world (courtesy)
Cover of Charlotte Morawski’s thesis from Breslau University, which can be found in libraries all over the world (courtesy)

Who did your family lose in the Shoah?

Their names are: Fritz and Ruth Morawski — my grand uncle and aunt from Breslau, shot by Einsatzgruppen in November 1941, Kovno.

The other Morawskis we know of from Breslau: Charlotte, Helene, Adolf, Leopold, Paula. Charlotte was particularly interesting to me because her thesis in 1915 at Breslau University was about Nietzsche and his Jewish friend, Rees. It appears in university libraries around the world.

When did you paint and draw the illustrations that appear in the film?

Over various periods since 2010, but principally in 2014 and 2015. They will be part also of a graphic book I am making called “Monsieur Mayonnaise” about my father in the French Resistance. That was his codename and a documentary [of the same title] by Trevor Graham has also just been completed about myself making this book, my father and family.

We filmed in Europe last year and I met survivors who worked with my father including Henri Loinger (105) in Paris, one of the heads of the Jewish Resistance. They were all involved in getting Jewish kids out of France. One of the kids my dad saved is now Dr. Henri Parens (87) in Philadelphia, a leading expert on Holocaust healing, trauma and survivor psychology.

Marcel Marceau [the legendary French mime artist] worked with my father in these OSE operations. It is a saga.

Philippe Mora, right, with his godfather, famous French-Jewish mime and member of the French Resistance, Marcel Marceau in 1993 (courtesy)
Philippe Mora, right, with his godfather, famous French-Jewish mime and member of the French Resistance, Marcel Marceau in 1993 (courtesy)

During the war your father and Marceau dressed as nuns to slip Jewish children over the Swiss border. What was your relationship to Marcel Marceau?

My godfather Marcel Marceau was one of the first Jewish artists to perform in Germany after WWII. He taught me the importance of reconciliation. He felt, and I agree, that without reconciliation this could happen again.

Which films and directors have influenced you?

Over my career, and on this film (in no order), I would say Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Ernst Lubitsch, Alain Resnais, David and Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, and others.

I understand why you ask the question of “How do you make a film about the Shoah?” which appears on screen in 3DA. But of course, there have been important films made about the Shoah. Which films come to mind?

“Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais is one of the best post-war films. But I do not think you can get a grasp on what happened without seeing the horrifying Nazi propaganda films like “Der Ewige Jude,” “Jude Suss,” and others which were compulsory viewing for many Nazi Party members.

I think there are many films to still be made about the Shoah. I am working on a project called “The Mothers,” about Heisenberg’s mother and Himmler’s mother getting together when Heisenberg was accused of being a “White Jew” by the SS because he taught Einstein’s theories.

If the question, “How do you make a Holocaust film?” remains with you, why make this film?

Picasso said words to the effect that the idea is not what really counts. What counts is what you figure out in the creative process as you make a work. I felt as I proceeded that in a way that question was the subject of the film. The subject is so huge in all its ramifications that I felt it would be presumptuous to have a conclusion.

Mora, center, with the actors portraying Hitler and the SS on the set of his 1983 movie 'The Return of Captain Invincible' (courtesy)
Mora, center, with the actors portraying Hitler and the SS on the set of his 1983 movie ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ (courtesy)

What do you hope this film accomplishes?

That a new generation [is] stimulated to find out more. I thought the personal approach may open the door to further interest, albeit it was the only way I felt I could make the film.

What influenced your making of this film?

It would be hard to separate aspects of my life that directly impacted the film since really my life’s experience is involved. The aspect of the Nazi looting of murder victims started to affect me. I had never fully appreciated the aspect of how much the money was an obsession of the Nazis, right down to stealing the gold teeth of their victims and other atrocities.

Cover of 'Three Days in Auschwitz' [2015] by Philippe Mora, music by Eric Clapton (courtesy)
Cover of ‘Three Days in Auschwitz’ [2015] by Philippe Mora, music by Eric Clapton (courtesy)

There is an aspect of the Shoah you could describe crudely as murder and robbery and kill the witness. This got me looking at the issue of restitution as fighting back. I engaged an expert attorney, Ken Meyer in Los Angeles to, for example, look into what happened to my late grandfather’s estate in Leipzig. [His name was Max Morawski.] He sent me this very interesting update yesterday:

“We are trying to investigate what happened to your family’s businesses, personal property, and real estate when the Nazis took power, but are having some difficulty getting the government (in this case, authorities in Leipzig) to give us access to certain records. Instead, after providing copies of documentation which evidence your family’s connection to certain property, your attorneys have been provided only with conclusions, but without any access to copies of the actual records on which we could base our own legal opinions, as would be customary in the U.S. Our efforts are continuing and we hope to convince government authorities that justice requires that we be granted access to copies of the actual records.”

What is your advice for children of survivors on managing the pain they inherited and the legacy they carry?

My advice, which I really inherited from my parents, is to celebrate all the wonderful things about life: family, culture in all its forms, great food, music, art, creativity, peace, nature… the works! Celebrate everything great about life and not just for you — also for all the beautiful people who are not with us today.

Why is it important to continue to foster awareness of the Shoah?

All creative people should create works about any aspect of the Shoah. Scientists and academics should write studies accessible to the general public in explaining aspects of the Shoah. Any engaged citizen should talk about what happened to their children and discuss new discoveries with their adult friends. I believe this could happen again in a different form. In fact, racism is the base cause in my view and genocide in all its forms must be stamped out. Apathy to racism is an ongoing curse in humanity.

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