Gleefully puffing on a cigarette while telling Jewish jokes, Marceline Loridan-Ivens radiates a vivacious, youthful presence. But she did not come to New York simply to crack jokes. This 75-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, with a will as fiery as her red hair, came to the city recently from her home in Paris to introduce the screening of her first feature film, “The Birch-Tree Meadow,” at the Jewish Film Festival held in Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.
The movie’s innocuous sounding title is actually the English translation of Birkenau, the Nazi death camp adjacent to Auschwitz. It is the first film ever made by a female Holocaust survivor and the only non-documentary film ever allowed to be shot at Birkenau. Loridan-Ivens got permission to film on-site once she put her steely determination on display: After first being denied a permit by the authorities, she threatened to chain herself to the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign and start a hunger strike to incite an international scandal.
A longtime documentary filmmaker, Loridan-Ivens completed her first film in 1962, titled “Algerie Année Zero.” One year later she met her husband, Joris Ivens, one of France’s most acclaimed documentarians. They collaborated on a number of films on various topics, especially East Asia, as well as the 1985 cult film “Histoire du Vent,” before he died in 1989. Ivens now chairs a foundation in his name and lectures on his work all around the world. They had no children. “Because of the camps,” she told the Forward, “I didn’t want children.”
In 1991 she was invited to screen “Histoire du Vent” in Poland. “I said I would only come if I could go to Birkenau,” she said. From there the idea for “The Birch Tree Meadow” grew, as the film allowed her to explore her own past in a way she had long wanted to do.
Seeking a better life, Loridan-Ivens’s father emigrated in 1920 from Poland to France, where the filmmaker was born. A little more than 20 years later, she was one of five children living with her parents in Bollène, a pretty village in the Vaucluse, when she and her father, who were active in the Resistance, were arrested by the Gestapo and the French police. They were sent to the transit camp Drancy and then back to Poland, to Auschwitz. It was 1943; Loridan-Ivens was 14. By the time of liberation, she had lost 45 family members at Auschwitz, including her father.
“For many years I could not speak about my experiences,” she said. “I thought about making this movie for years, yet I didn’t want to do a film of testimonies because there already exist many of them.”
Rather than a documentary that would force a survivor to revisit the camp, possibly manufacturing emotions, in “The Birch Tree Meadow” Loridan-Ivens has created a film that is dramatic in and of itself without melodrama or a didactic tone. By respecting the uniqueness of each individual experience, the film takes a stand against “massification” — a French term that denotes blurring multiple survivors’ experiences into a uniform mass. “Each survivor has their own vision, outside and inside,” she said. By opting for fiction, Loridan-Ivens sought something more intimate and profound, portraying the ambiguity of memory, its voids and its revisions.
The film she created falls into no neat category. While it is clearly an autobiographical narrative, it lacks voice-over and flashbacks. The use of actors, Loridan-Ivens explained, came from the necessity to distance herself from her own history. It also stems from her belief in the ability of actors to plunge to the depths of emotions.
Loridan-Ivens’s alter ego in the film, Myriam, is played by Anouk Aimée, the French-Jewish screen legend who also lost family members at Auschwitz. Aimée stepped in when Jeanne Moreau, initially cast in the role, left. “Anouk Aimee is not an actress who needs to prepare for this role,” Loridan-Ivens explained. “Look at Anouk Aimée in the film — she is magnificent!”
The film follows the path of Myriam, a French-Jewish survivor who returns alone 50 years after the Holocaust to Cracow, her family’s home and Auschwitz. The trip is a conscious pilgrimage of a survivor seeking to confront the phantoms of the past. In Cracow, she is recognized as a survivor and encounters a branch of the tourist industry that focuses on Jews searching out their roots. She finds, to her bewilderment, faux-Jewish restaurants with klezmer music being played by non-Jewish musicians and hotels furnished in a “typically Jewish” style. The restorations in this city quarter of Kazimierz try to recreate the pre-war atmosphere sans Juifs. Myriam visits the apartment in which she grew up; the present owner asks, “Is the Jew here to take back the property?”
In a telling scene, Myriam crosses out the word “museum” on a sign for Auschwitz and instead writes “camp.” Loridan-Ivens’s film uses fiction to address the transformation that has taken place at the site itself, from a death camp to a tourist attraction. “One reason that Auschwitz doesn’t appear in my film is that they have planted trees there,” she said, “while Birkenau is less visited by tourists.”
Myriam is accompanied on her trek through the camp by a young German photographer. After she first reacts with revulsion upon learning that his grandfather was one of the SS generals responsible for the administration of Auschwitz, she eventually agrees to allow him to photograph her. This relationship is a symbolic encounter of two worlds, the past and the present, the victim and the victimizer, France and Germany, Jew and gentile. The message is clear: Acceptance is the bridge of reconciliation.
This sober film marks a departure from previous Holocaust movies. For the first time in a Holocaust film, the direct experience of the concentration camp and the technical expertise of a filmmaker are united in its director. The film raises the question: Does anyone have the right to attempt to represent the unimaginable? Loridan-Ivens has forsaken all archival footage, all attempts to reconstruct the past. If a survivor filmmaker refuses to represent what occurred at Auschwitz, does someone less close to the events have the right?
Near the end of the film, Myriam screams out a window, “I live! I live!” Loridan-Ivens’s film and her extraordinary presence have the same message. In making the film, she said, “I recovered the energy I lost there when I was 15.” Yet, at the end of the film, Myriam catches a fleeting glimpse of a young Polish girl, the phantom of her youth, lost in that birch tree meadow.