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Director William Friedkin Finds His Jewish Connection

As I prepare to interview William Friedkin, I keep thinking about an assignment I had in high school. A much-loved high school history teacher asked us to write a term paper analyzing a classic European film alongside its American remake. The pairing I chose was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” (1953) and Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (1977). Both films are exercises in nail-biting suspense that follow four men driving trucks of nitroglycerin over South American mountain roads. I cannot for the life of me remember what I wrote all those years ago. I’m fairly certain, however, that in my eagerness to please my teacher, I argued that the original was a masterpiece while the remake demonstrated everything that was wrong with Hollywood.

“I could have directed my nephew’s bar mitzvah after the ‘French Connection!’” Friedkin told me. On the heels of making that film and “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer” was a near-Sisyphean undertaking that was one of the biggest and most resounding flops in movie history. After an arduous multinational shoot, during which the cast and crew suffered illness and injuries, the film tanked with both critics and audiences. It didn’t even begin to make back its $22 million budget (close to $100 million in today’s dollars and an unheard-of sum at the time). Like Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” another film with a troubled production that was released around the same time, “Sorcerer” is a journey into the heart of darkness. Unlike that universally praised Vietnam film, though, “Sorcerer” was, at the time of its release, dismissed, reviled and very nearly ended the director’s career.

Friedkin has long maintained that “Sorcerer” is his best – and most personal – film. So it must feel vindicating that the Cannes Film Festival invited him to present a restored version of the film at this year’s event. In addition, he’s here to introduce his 1985 sun-soaked noir “To Live and Die in L.A.” and give the festival’s annual master class. I’m eager to ask him about the critical reevaluation of “Sorcerer,” but as I sit down with the 80-year-old director, I find myself telling him about my high school assignment.

“What I’m about say is pretty funny and requires a word of explanation,” I tell him right off the bat. “You see, I went to a Jewish high school in Manhattan.” Friedkin, 80, the Chicago-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, interrupts me right there. “That is funny,” he blurts out.

I tell him about the teacher, the assignment and the damning conclusions I remember drawing about his film back then. He just shakes his head and says, “You were wrong. You were totally wrong.”

Neither a remake nor homage to “Wages of Fear,” “Sorcerer” is an utterly different take on the same source material that inspired Clouzot, a novel by Georges Arnaud (“a confirmed anti-Semite,” according to Friedkin, who says Arnaud hated “Sorcerer” because of a sequence he shot in Jerusalem). Anchored by a muscular performance from Roy Scheider, “Sorcerer” is dark, complex and extremely violent. It is also visually rich, with stunning landscapes from Europe to the Middle East and, ultimately, South America, all of which look a helluva lot better after Friedkin’s painstaking restoration (certainly better on the big screen than on the VHS version I would have seen as a teenager).

Like its direct predecessors in Friedkin’s filmography (far and away the director’s most famous works), “Sorcerer” is a study of evil in the world. In fact, the human capacity for good and evil is at the heart of Friedkin’s career as a director, running all the way through his five decades of filmmaking, up to his most recent film, “Killer Joe” (2011).

For someone so deeply obsessed with the nature of evil, though, Friedkin has a winning sense of humor. He is a theatrical raconteur, liberally seasoning his anecdotes with jokes and shtick (the first time I saw him, at the Venice Film Festival, he threatened to break out singing opera arias). He seems like the world’s best crazy uncle, so I ask him how he squares his personal levity with the brooding themes he returns to again and again.

“I don’t reconcile them,” he responds in his Chicago accent. “I think I’d rather take life with a sense of humor, but I’m more interested in drama that’s dark or that’s about the eternal struggle of good and evil. Those make the best dramas. But personally I have to take things lightly. You’d go absolutely crazy if you didn’t.”

Friedkin’s ability to laugh along with his obsession with evil strikes me as particularly Jewish, even if his dualistic wordview that seems at odds with his upbringing (he went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah). He denies that being Jewish has had any conscious influence on the types of films he has made, and it’s hard to disagree. I mean, who’d have seriously expected a Jewish kid from Chicago to make “The Exorcist”?

I ask Friedkin if, like Kubrick, he’s ever been drawn to the Holocaust as the subject of a film. “It’s hard to say something different about the Holocaust,” he says, singling out the recent “Son of Saul” as a rare success. For a moment he is quiet, which is unusual for him.

“If I were able to do anything about that,” he resumes, “it would be about the Germans and the madness that overtook a sophisticated, intelligent population.” He pauses again.

“To me, it was demonic possession on a massive scale,” he adds. It’s easily the most incredible, possibly outrageous, thing I’ve heard at the festival. “That’s the only thing that explains it,” he continues. “That all of these people from all walks of life, laborers, doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, secretaries, everybody, followed this madman into hell. Now that’s what intrigues me.”

Friedkin tells me that when he was directing “Salome” (when it comes to opera, he still goes for the grim stuff) a decade ago in Munich, he felt that “the spirit of Nazism was in the air.” He also mentions that he drove past Hitler’s house in Branau am Inn. “That’s still there,” Friedkin says. “You can’t go inside of course. It’s not a tourist attraction, but they haven’t torn it down.” He also recently visited one of Mussolini’s houses outside of Rome. These places seem to have both unsettled and fascinated him.

After a lifetime of exploring evil onscreen (and occasionally onstage), has he reached any conclusions? “My conclusion is that there is good and evil within all of us, within every person, and it’s a constant struggle for our better angels to survive and thrive,” he says. “But I believe that there is good and evil in every human being that’s ever lived, including Mother Teresa and Saint Paul.”

Whether or not Friedkin continues to plumb the depths of good and evil onscreen, the octogenarian’s glory days as a filmmaker are clearly behind him. If his sense of humor comes as a surprise, so does his apparent lack of sentimentality. I ask if he’s ever nostalgic. “Not really, no,” he begins. “Only for certain restaurant I used to like. There was a particular hamburger that I used to love that I used to get in a drugstore when I was a kid. Never found that taste of that hamburger since. And I still remember it. I don’t know how they did it.”

A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based freelance writer.

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