Boaz Yakin is the award-winning director of “Fresh” (1994), “Price Above Rubies” (1998) and “Remember the Titans” (2000). His latest film, “Death in Love” — which he not only wrote, produced and directed, but also funded with his life savings — has just been released to mixed reviews. It deals with the psychological traumas that get passed down through the generations of a family whose matriarch (played by Jacqueline Bisset) is a Holocaust survivor. Her time in the concentration camp was spent as the imprisoned but somewhat accommodating lover of a Nazi doctor there, and that complex and pathological legacy is transmitted to her two sons. The Forward’s Dan Friedman spoke with Yakin recently about the genesis of “Death in Love,” the film’s purposefully assaultive nature and why he thinks the Holocaust plays too big a role in shaping Diaspora identity.
Dan Friedman: How did the film come about?
Boaz Yakin: Basically, I was coming out of a long, debilitating depression and hadn’t made a film in five years. I mean I had produced some stuff and had a commitment to making films, but every time I sat down with a studio, it was clear that we were creatively not compatible and were just wasting each other’s time.
So I took off and wrote this in a friend’s apartment in New York. I just put out onto paper the psychological patterns and cycles in my mind. I sat down each day and said “What do I write today that makes me uncomfortable?” I took my own worst negative cycles and pushed them to the highest degree in a cautionary way. I wanted to ask what happens when you let your own worst instincts and worst behaviors govern your choices.
Did that help with the depression?
I don’t know! Some friends called me up now [that] they see the film is out, and they ask, “Hey, so now are you all better?” But I don’t know. It took a long time and I’m happy to see it in distribution.
Once it was written I couldn’t raise the money for it. The studios weren’t interested in something this intense and without an obvious resolution, so I took my life savings and I funded it myself.
The story deals with a young girl who survives the Shoah by basically sleeping with a Nazi, and then she transfers this whole messed up legacy to her sons. Is this based on your life in some way?
It’s funny you ask that; a lot of people have asked that. I think partially because this feels personal. As artists, we put ourselves into everything we do but there’s something angry, frustrated and even assaultive about the film. People have a desire to understand and it’s maybe easier for them to understand and believe in the characters. In this case people want to know why they are being assaulted!
Psychologically it’s as close to me as anything I’ve written, but the story is totally fabricated. My father’s side is Syrian/Egyptian, so they were in Palestine during the war. My mother was with her parents also in Palestine, but all her family was in Poland and was totally wiped out so I have no one on her side of the family because of the Holocaust. But my mother didn’t date a Nazi officer in World War II, no way! Apart from anything else, she was 6!
So why did you write this about the Shoah?
I had a different attitude to the Holocaust. I was at an Orthodox Jewish school, but not Orthodox. I grew up half-Israeli, half-American and the film deals with some feelings of being a Jew in the Diaspora.
The Holocaust is too big a part of Diaspora identity. Diaspora Jews treat the Shoah as if it’s a unique and precious gift that must be defended at all costs. I wanted to use it as a metaphor for cyclical pain, but for some families it might be alcoholism or something else — another trauma.
For some scholars the Shoah is a historical aberration; for others, it’s part of history. What is it for you?
It’s definitely part of a continuum. Jews, as horrible as the Shoah was, have a love affair with it. It’s such a dramatic event and it’s so difficult to find words to describe how horrible it was that it’s easy to put it outside history and not deal with it.
It’s surprising to me, saddening perhaps that it’s such a controversial idea to deal with it — Jews are so protective of it, don’t question it. They use it as an absolution from responsibility.
But there are lots of holocausts, maybe not as terrible or with other details, but they are happening to other people now and they happened at other times, and even to us. The Holocaust seems like an orgasmic culmination to 3,000 years of sadomasochistic relationship between Jews and gentiles.
I don’t mean on an individual level. Take the individual out of this. No 16-year-old kid in Krakow was asking to be put in the ovens. I mean cultures, social groups, larger groups need to be looked as like individuals over decades and eons. Over time they behave like individuals in relationships. Perhaps a wife didn’t ask to be shot that night, but over time she stood for more and more abuse and eventually she says something or nothing and it escalates. It doesn’t make it right, but it makes an explanation.
Jews and gentiles still have a sadomasochistic relationship, but the game-changer is Israel. The Holocaust has a different place in the psyche of Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. It’s not as central a part of identity for Israelis, though they do use it for justifying other types of behavior.
So this is not a Holocaust film, it just uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for not being able to escape those things that are seeded in you before you arrive.
Why do the characters have no names?
They weren’t unnamed from the get-go. As I was writing it, I realized that it was about the people in it not being able to see others. Characters in it reflect a state of mind, an inability to see others as human beings. They are caught in a narcissistic cycle where they see people fulfilling roles that they need to see fulfilled. The specifics of what people are is less important than what they can provide: They get treated like two-dimensional beings by the depressed mind.
The film is my subconscious spilling out — which makes the film difficult for people. It doesn’t announce its strangeness. The trouble is that when you fluctuate in tone, the variance is more challenging, but it can look like you don’t know what you are doing.
Normally when you are making a film in the American film system, you can’t experiment too much. You create a reality and then stick with it — whether it’s a fantasy-reality or a real-reality — or audiences feel betrayed, David Lynch is very effective in setting a tone and sticking with it.
This film has some very realistic parts, but dreamlike parts too. The Nazi showing up all that time later is like a dream, part of this family’s obsession with death, relation to the id.
I have one foot in reality and one foot out of reality. I wrote something after this, not made yet, less violent and intense than this, but deals with this feeling of being inside and outside reality at the same time.
How did you put together the cast?
There’s this catch-22 about making films. Before you are going actors don’t want to sign on but studios say, we’ll make it only if so-and-so is signed on. The way the film business works is frustrating, that’s why it’s sometimes easier to get a massive film made.
Once you say you’re going, then actors are prepared to sign on if they like the project. I needed someone fierce and physical and beautiful and I’d seen Jacqueline Bisset in [Claude] Chabrol’s “La cérémonie” so when she said she could do it, that was it.
Josh Lucas. What was interesting with him was to catch someone at the exact right time. The bigger stuff maybe wasn’t working creatively or maybe financially. He wasn’t getting parts where he could actually act. He was maybe going through some of the same things that I was going through. But a year earlier or a year later, he might not have been able to do it.
You say it’s a cautionary film — what is it cautioning?
If you present a problem in the piece, people feel frustrated if you don’t show the solution. If you make a film about addiction you have to present a ray of hope.
America says “You are responsible for your own life, you have free choices,” but there are a lot of things already imprinted in us before we’re born. Choices have actually been made for us that we have no control over.
Classical tragedy recognizes that. It shows flaws inherent in the people and allows them to go all the way, without any solutions. It shows what happens if it goes unchecked: If I allow jealousy in me to go unchecked this could be the result. I’m not comparing the quality of this with “Oedipus” or anything, just saying that it’s the same structure.
Were there other films you drew on?
Well there were films I admired — [Ingmar] Bergman’s “Persona” “Cries and Whispers” and “Scenes From a Marriage.” I thought Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” was incredible but I wouldn’t want to watch it in the room with somebody else. I saw Isabelle Huppert in [Michael] Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” after finishing my film but before directing and it gave me a sense that this type of filmmaking was possible. Filmmaking that was violent but precise, with intensity and ferocity, that approached the human condition like a surgeon with a scalpel.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.