In the winter of 2018, Yuval Adler, the Israeli philosopher, mathematician, visual artist and Ophir award-winning filmmaker, received a series of messages from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Well, the actor who played her at least. Noomi Rapace, who originated the role of vigilante hacker Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, reached out to Adler to develop a script she was set to act in. Adler knew her from her turn as Salander and ended up tapping into some of that character’s rage for the project — along with much of Rapace’s own background.
The result of their partnership is Adler’s latest film, “The Secrets We Keep,” a domestic thriller set in the 1950s, where Rapace, as suburban mother Maja, pistol whips, abducts and interrogates her neighbor Thomas, played by Joel Kinnaman. Maja believes that Thomas is a member of an SS unit who raped her and murdered her sister amid the chaos of the Red Army’s advance into Romania. But Thomas denies it — even as Maja brutalizes him in her basement — claiming to be a Swiss national. His appearance years after the war, just a short distance from her home, brings to light stories Maja never told her husband and those that Thomas never told his own wife.
With the film, Adler, whose features “Bethlehem” and “The Operative” follow the volatile relationship between intelligence agents and their sources, has built a filmography of fraught partnerships and the personal histories that threaten to undermine them.
Adler spoke to me from his home in New York City about how the film came to be and what — if anything — his studies on Heidegger and Husserl have to do with it. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ Grisar: There are many films about survivors — and even quite a few about ones that track down their tormentors from the war — but there aren’t many that feature Romani characters. How did you decide to make someone from that culture your protagonist?
Yuval Adler: I didn’t want to do a Holocaust film, maybe as an Israeli I was saturated in this issue. Noomi is very close to her Romani culture and has friends who are scholars of it…. We looked for a setup where we would have something you haven’t seen before.
You were a philosopher before you were a filmmaker — did that other expertise inform the film and its ideas?
To put it melodramatically, my life is an attempt to work out that question. I don’t have an answer. I’m trying to put all these thoughts together somehow. I don’t have a thesis.
One big debate that’s been popping up now is the ethics of revenge with regard to the Holocaust — I think of the show “Hunters,” which was condemned by the USC Shoah foundation for making survivors vigilantes. How do you see “The Secrets that We Keep” and Maja’s actions fitting into that conversation?
As a director you don’t have to always know the answers or even the meaning of what you did. When we were rewriting the script, it was not long after the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings. She said [he did it]. He said “I wasn’t there, it wasn’t me.” I thought that’s interesting. You have no idea what really transpired. You can never know. It’s all about these two people, these two personalities clashing. That was the thing that really interested me about that.
The whole notion of having a personal narrative.
Yeah. And the past becomes inaccessible, and also, in general, the relationship to the past is a big, big thing right now — people tearing down monuments, people reevaluating people’s careers. How do we deal with the past? My job is not to answer that as a filmmaker — maybe as a philosopher I have an idea — but as a filmmaker my job is, if there’s a problem, to let it play out in an interesting way and present the aspects of the contradiction in an interesting way. I don’t need to offer a solution. I don’t like it when film panders to people’s political biases.
At the core of this is whether there can be redemption for war criminals. I know you’re not in the answers business as a filmmaker, but has the project changed your thinking on the question?
If something changed it’s more appreciation for this psychological situation where people are getting into this loop of the past and are unable to get out of it. This past thing defines them. I guess it does change your view of other things. I learned a lot about PTSD. That was part of the research that we did.
You do a lot of research before a film — you learned some Arabic for “Bethlehem.”
I’m a grad student. In essence that’s what I am. I just want to study stuff.
You’ve lived in the States, in Israel — mainly in cities, I gather. What was it like researching American suburban life?
My three main partners in this are Kolja Brandt, my cinematographer, and then Christina Flannery, the wardrobe person and Nate Jones the production designer. Sometimes period films look stuffy and [feel like] doing homework for school. Sometimes there are too many hats and sometimes you’re like “I understand, we’re in the period. Leave me alone. Stop assaulting me with the periodness of it.” I think we got period that’s not too in your face, kind of subtle.
What’s an example of a cool period film for you?
“The Untouchables” is my favorite period film.
So much of this is taking place just in Maja’s house or Thomas’. What was it like to make something this contained? Where was it filmed?
New Orleans. But of course, we didn’t want it to look like New Orleans. You want it to be anywhere. You spend typically so much energy moving from location to location. If you just stay in a place you can actually concentrate on what’s important. On the other hand, it can become repetitive and you need to find a way to shoot it in a way that will keep it interesting. It’s both a blessing and a challenge.
“The Secrets We Keep” is in theaters September 16 and available on-demand on October 16.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.