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"Two thumbs up."
Ebert & Roper
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Refreshingly original, deeply reverberating!"
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New York Times
"A fascinating meditation on the nature of heroism and survival. "
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"Potent! A revealing and provocative documentary...funny, moving and sad!"
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funniest movie of the summer!"
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Voice Choice of the Week.
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provocative! This may be the year's outstanding doc!"
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New York Post
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New York Daily News
"One of the great documentaries of this year, or any other."
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"Certainly one of the best films of the year so far!"
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"Heartbreaking, hilarious! I couldn't recommend it more highly!"
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intimate collection of postwar memories, Fighter is
a powerful, heartfelt and funny documentary. Director Amir Bar-Levs
feature debut gracefully
provides many uplifting moments that
will touch even the most cynical viewer!"
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Documentary award-winner Fighter is an extraordinary and
moving recounting of a pair of extraordinary lives."
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deserving jury winner
is an extraordinary journey
conversations are the tastiest and most thrillingly philosophical
My Dinner With Andre!"
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is a psychic and spiritual journey that celebrates a friendship
bonded by the pain of experience!"
joy of director Amir Bar-Levs work is the utter unobtrusiveness
of it all. The film recalls none of the formalistic rigor of Errol
Resnais, and the informality is a wonderful antithesis
to so many button-pushing Holocaust pieces!"
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pair of old war hands regale each other with exploits that fascinate
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the best documentary I've seen all year. I hope that we are seeing
the beginning of a great documentary career here."
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TNT Rough Cut
Karlovy Vary... the film to catch was Fighter"
What is the nature of a true hero? Fierce, resolute, and forever
consistent? Or flexible, many-sided, and ironical? Is Prince Hal
necessarily a greater man than Falstaff? This is one of many questions
raised by "Fighter," a brilliant documentary record of a tangled
and combative relationship between a pair of Shakespearean personalities,
Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, Czech Jews who outlasted the Nazi
Occupation and the Stalinist secret police and wound up as émigrés
in America, where they met and became friends. Lustig, seventy-two,
is a prolific novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter who had long
wanted to tell the story of Jan Wiener--a wartime hero who escaped
from Occupied Prague in 1940, made a hazardous trip through Yugoslavia
and Italy, and, eventually, at the end of the war, flew as a pilot
for the R.A.F. The young American filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev was planning
to visit Europe with Wiener; he decided to bring Lustig along as
an interlocutor and commentator. This idea turned out to be a piece
of mischief, for, as Wiener and Lustig get back to Prague and then
retrace Wiener's escape route, their friendship begins to unravel.
This unusually cogent and complexly structured documentary becomes,
all at once, a kind of existential travelogue, an interrogation
of memory, and a comedy of temperament. Wiener, extraordinarily
handsome at the age of seventy-seven, with snowy hair and a stiff,
almost Prussian mustache, is a Jew who refused to be a victim. Since
the war, making his living as a university instructor, he has fashioned
his nature around the iron lesson of his survival--the unfailing
pugnacity that became his defense, his weapon, his story, and his
legend. Lustig admires him enormously, but he is jealous, perhaps,
of Wiener's bravery and physical beauty, and he can't stop teasing
and unsettling him. He suggests that during the war Wiener used
his looks to attract people who agreed to help him, that his survival
has more ambiguous meanings than the angry certainty of pure will
that Wiener wrings out of it. Lustig himself made some compromises
to get by in the Communist period (Wiener is contemptuous of his
acts); he doesn't think that rage is necessarily the best response
to every situation in life. He's a joyous man, a bon vivant, witty
and malicious, and Wiener, still suffering from wartime humiliations
and offended by Lustig's sallies, retreats from him and falls into
his habitual fury. By the end of the journey, Wiener sees his old
friend as a trifler; Lustig sees his friend as disfigured by a hatred
he cannot leave behind. As they travel, they act out the clash between
warrior and artist, moralist and philosopher, and Bar-Lev catches
the ideal possibilities of both temperaments, weaving into the journey
documentary footage of the Nazi and Communist periods which adds
shades of tragedy and farce to the personal disputes. No one could
want to go through what these two endured, but they remain, even
in this comical odd-couple struggle, admirable witnesses of the
savage century gone by.
Separate Journeys for
Some men are born to fight, others to reflect. Despite similar
European Jewish backgrounds, a fighter and a philosopher may end
up with notions of the past that are as opposed as their temperaments.
That's one of the lessons of "Fighter," Amir Bar-Lev's enthralling
Holocaust survival documentary. As the movie follows two such men
on a journey into the past, their dual memories become a thorny,
unresolved dialogue between an angry man of action and a warmly
cynical sage arguing about the very meaning of history.
As the two retrace the fighter's youthful footsteps across war-torn
Europe nearly six decades after events that remain seared in his
memory, the fighter relates a riveting personal adventure story.
Between chapters, the writer, with a gallows humor, inserts his
own devastating memories of a family wiped out by the Holocaust.
(He remembers how his father, who was killed by the Nazis, used
to gather the family around the radio to laugh at Hitler's speeches.)
From their shared stories, the writer, who has come to terms with
the horror, wryly draws conclusions about history and human nature
while the fighter remains locked in his rage.
Before the movie ends, the two have a bitter disagreement that
reflects their fundamental differences, despite their shared nationality
and history. (Both left Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960's.)
Revolving around what appears to be a minor point in the fighter's
tale, the dispute abruptly ends what had seemed to be a solid friendship.
The fighter, whose remarkable true story forms the spine of the
film, is Jan Wiener, a Czech émigré living in the United States,
who was 78 when "Fighter" was filmed three years ago. His traveling
companion, also a Holocaust survivor living in the United States,
is Arnost Lustig, a Czech émigré writer, filmmaker and teacher (at
American University in Washington) who was 72 at the time.
As they make their way from Prague through the former Yugoslavia
to Italy, visiting the places Mr. Wiener hid out from the Nazis,
he tells a true story of escape that is as gripping as any Hollywood
action movie. Mr. Wiener eventually landed in England, where he
joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot.
The movie opens with a scene of Mr. Wiener, still imperiously
handsome in his late 70's with a nearly full head of white hair
and a Ted Turner mustache, methodically hammering a punching bag
at his home in Lenox, Mass. The two friends meet in Washington for
an initial planning session. From there the film follows them to
Prague, where Mr. Wiener visits the former office of the Nazi collaborator
who gave him an exit visa but contemptuously predicted he wouldn't
live long enough to wear out one pair of shoes.
Mr. Wiener credits his determination to prove that official wrong
and return one day to kill him as being a key to his survival. Six
years later, he recalls, he returned triumphantly to confront the
same man. Hate had kept him alive.
Friction between the two friends erupts when Mr. Wiener, who was
later accused by Czech Communists of being a British spy and endured
five years of hard labor in a Communist prison camp, attacks Mr.
Lustig for having been a Communist. The attack elicits from Mr.
Lustig a rueful account of his own eventual disillusion with Communism
and the lessons learned.
Mr. Wiener's antagonism softens once they visit Terezin, the town
where Mr. Lustig grew up and the site of the concentration camp
where his mother was murdered by the Nazis. (The eeriest of the
movie's many vintage film clips is an excerpt from a propaganda
film, "The Führer Gives a City to the Jews," made in the "model
camp," which the Nazis used to camouflage their atrocities.) From
there, they return to the house in Slovenia where Mr. Wiener's father
and stepmother committed suicide in 1941 on the eve of the Nazi
occupation. Fleeing Slovenia for Trieste, Mr. Wiener escaped by
hiding under a speeding train, clinging for 18 hours to a filthy
steel plate attached to a toilet hole.
As they visit one location after another, Mr. Wiener is abashed
to discover that the past has vanished and that some of those he
remembers don't remember him. Increasingly irritated, he takes umbrage
at Mr. Lustig's interpretations of events, which he sees as a violation
of his sacred memories. The final straw comes when Mr. Lustig suggests
that an Italian police officer who spared Mr. Wiener's life might
have done so because Mr. Wiener was good looking and reminded him
of his son. The fighter insists it was the officer's human compassion
after hearing his story and no other reason.
"Fighter," which opens today at the Lincoln Plaza, is a deeply
reverberating film. In juxtaposing two extraordinary personal histories,
it ponders in a refreshingly original way unanswerable questions
about memory, imagination, history and that elusive thing we call
New York Times
The incredible journey
TV Guide Rating: 4 Stars
Twenty-eight year-old director Amir Bar-Lev's superb, thought-provoking documentary begins as something quite ordinary -- a record of an old man revisiting his homeland -- and ends as a fascinating meditation on the nature of heroism and survival. The old man is Jan Wiener, 77, a spry, fit and still dashingly handsome Jewish Czech expatriate and former fighter pilot, who agreed to retrace the arduous journey he once made from his home in Czechoslovakia down through southern Italy to escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Jan also agreed to allow old friend Arnost Lustig, a renowned Czech author who wants to write a book about Wiener's odyssey, to come along. But Lustig brings more to the table than his skill as a biographer: Having once been interred in the concentration camp at Terezin, Lustig is also a survivor (his story was made into the 1964 film DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT). Lustig's post-war experiences were quite different from Weiner's, and quickly become a source of contention. Lustig returned home to become an active member of the Czech Communist party, while Wiener, who was suspected of spying for the British, was sentenced to serve five years in a labor camp for his "anti-people's attitude." As Weiner and Lustig travel from Prague to Terezin to Slovenia (where Wiener watched his father and step-mother commit suicide) and, finally, to Sicily, where Weiner was eventually rescued by Allied forces, the friendship deteriorates beyond repair. Even more than Lustig's party activities, Wiener ultimately resents Lustig's role as an interpreter of Wiener's life. Arnost, who argues that few of us are born to be anything greater than indifferent, concludes this remarkable film by posing a question that speaks to the heart of the matter. Can those few fighters among us, who are equipped to survive under extraordinary conditions, adapt successfully to an ordinary, unheroic world? This exciting, ultimately bittersweet, film was shot cheaply on video, but is nevertheless filled with moments of artistry and invention. Bar-Lev carefully matches contemporary video footage with vintage newsreels, and includes a few clips from a chilling piece of Nazi propaganda entitled The Führer Gives a City to the Jews, which presents the notorious ghetto at Theresienstadt as a safe, happy haven for Europe's Jewish citizens.
Survivors ReliveHistory's Horrors
In the potent documentary 'Fighter,' two men with sharply contrasting points of view travel back to scenes of harrowing experiences with Nazis, Communists.
"Fighter" might be called "Two Tough Jews" or "My Squabble With Arnost," but under any name it's a revealing and provocative documentary. Director Amir Bar-Lev finds a way to mix the personal, the philosophical and the historical into a complex human document, something that's funny, moving and sad.
The fighter of the title is clearly 77-year-old Jan Weiner, a professor and wilderness guide introduced smartly hitting the heavy bag despite his advanced years. A figure of great dignity and presence, with snow-white hair and a carefully clipped mustache, Weiner is a classic man of action with a story to match his bearing.
Weiner was only 19 when he got himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague, first to Slovenia and then to Italy. There he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and managed to get to Britain and join the Royal Air Force. He returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, only to find himself imprisoned by the Communist regime for five years because of his British connections. Eventually emigrating to the United States, Weiner became friends with another Czech refugee, writer and filmmaker Arnost Lustig, whose experience was different but equally compelling: He spent the war years in a variety of Nazi death camps, from Theresienstadt to Buchenwald.
It was the idea of filmmakers Bar-Lev, Alex Mamlet and Jonathan Crosby to have these two men go back to the scenes of their wartime experiences together. It was a natural suggestion, especially given that both are articulate, powerful storytellers with crystalline recollections of indelible stories, but what happened on the trip no one could have anticipated.
As Weiner and Lustig relived what they went through, the weight of reexperiencing their pasts made both men more intransigent, more themselves. And since each represented a very distinct psychological type, a different way of interacting with the world, a compelling, disturbing dynamic was the result.
"Fighter" goes first to Prague, where Weiner's war experiences began. He revisits the building where his reaction to being humiliated by a Czech collaborator was so intense that he claims his hate kept him alive until the war ended and he could reconfront the man with the frank intention of killing him. Weiner and Lustig have their first major verbal confrontation in that same office, arguing passionately over Lustig's postwar membership in the same Communist Party that unjustly imprisoned Weiner for all those years.
The next stop is Theresienstadt, the fake showcase of concentration camps, presented to the world in a staged and contrived newsreel called "The Fhrer Gives a City to the Jews" as the happiest place on Earth. It's where Lustig and his family were first imprisoned and where Weiner's mother was beaten to death.
Next comes a visit to Slovenia, where Weiner had witnessed his father and his stepmother take poison and commit suicide because they believed "that is the only freedom that is left to us." Finally, there is Italy, the last stop before liberation.
As the trip progresses, both men emerge in stronger, more uncompromising outline. Weiner is the consummate doer, the man who is increasingly resistant to speculation and analysis and prone to fearing that Lustig, who's wanted to write about him, will inevitably do violence to his story.
The writer, for his part, is an even more complicated character. He understands Weiner and his motivations, but his temperament forces him to tease the man in an unpromising fashion, and his experiences during the war have made him more of a cynical relativist than his traveling companion.
Lustig, for example, tells of stealing two cabbages as a boy and getting slapped for it by his father, who then gave the vegetables to his mother to cook for dinner. "That was my first lesson about morality," he says. "It's a child of necessity. If you're hungry, you change it."
A clash between an observer who believes in the value of the imagination and a doer who views speculation with suspicion would be likely under any circumstances, but the conflict both men lived through made it inevitable and sad. "No one who survived the war is normal," Lustig confirms near the close. "It's impossible."
October 26, 2001
Pals Retrace Their Flight
FIGHTER. (U) Documentary blast into the past of the charismatic
Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, the Sunshine Boys of the Holocaust.
Charming, chilling, unforgettable psychoanalytic travelogue with
the pugnacious pair of Jan Wiener, 77, and Arnost Lustig, 72.
THERE'S A BEAUTIFUL moment, one of many, that comes about midway
through "Fighter," Amir Bar-Lev's psychoanalytic travelogue with
the pugnacious pair of Jan Wiener, 77, and Arnost Lustig, 72. The
two are leaving Slovenia by bus, drinking slivovitz, spilling slivovitz,
Lustig bare-chested, both men smiling - as are some much younger
tourists behind them, grinning oh-so-indulgently at the goofy old
If they knew what we know about Wiener and Lustig, it would be
enough to slap those patronizing smiles off those patronizing faces.
Friends who met in America in 1978, both men are professors, and
share parts of their pasts: Both are Czech, both are Jews, both
fled their country's postwar communist regime. But Wiener fled to
England, via Italy, in 1940, and became a flier with the RAF; Lustig
spent his adolescence in Auschwitz and later joined the Communist
Party. Wiener, the fighter of the title, is a barely controlled,
impressively handsome man whose rage lies just below his very civilized
surface; Lustig, clearly a rake, is a natural provocateur who seems
to enjoy getting Wiener's goat.
While "Fighter" is historically and emotionally potent - as well
as the funniest movie of the summer, thanks mostly to Lustig's understated
but pungent wit - it's also about the amorphous nature of memory
and the nobility of age. From those irritants on the bus, Bar-Lev
cuts to some seemingly gratuitous shots of elderly Europeans, just
walking along, hiding their stories - and that's the very point.
Everyone has stories. They may not have led the lives of Wiener
and Lustig, but the the past is everywhere, and every day evaporates.
Most documentaries live or die on the strength of their subjects
or the personalities they profile. Bar-Lev is blessed both ways.
The camera follows Wiener and Lustig, a well-known writer, who has
set out to tell Wiener's story. As the pair retraces Wiener's route
of escape (from Prague to Slovenia to Italy, where he was interned
before escaping to England), their verbal sparring turns more and
more heated. Wiener takes exception to Lustig questioning his memory;
Lustig, the more measured man, perhaps because he lived so much
longer and closer to death, takes a reflective position about Wiener,
clearly because he loves the man so much, despite their polar temperaments.
The stories we get from both - one of the best involves Italian
POWs who chose death rather than to stop flirting with German women
- are entertaining at worst, startling at best. But the simple fact
of "Fighter" is that these two guys are such fun to be around. "I
made her happy ...," Wiener says, recalling a wartime liaison. "Yes,"
Lustig replies, "for 10 minutes.... " Both men, however tenuous
their friendship seems at film's end, exhibit such a thirst for
life and resilient nature that they make for a most unusual kind
of movie: a Holocaust documentary with a distinct air of victory.
The War That Never Ended
Novelistic scope and dialectical edge distinguish Fighter, Amir
Bar-Lev's irresistible documentary about two Czech Holocaust survivors,
Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig. The film started out as a portrait
of the 78-year-old Wiener, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague
in 1941 and made his way to England, where he joined the RAF. En
route, he witnessed his father and stepmother's suicide, hid under
a train hanging on to a shit-covered rod for 18 hours, and spent
close to a year in Italian jails and POW camps. After the armistice,
he returned to Prague only to be sentenced by the new Czech Communist
government to five years of hard labor for the crime of "contamination
by the West."
Bar-Lev's idea was to record Wiener retracing the route of his
odyssey. His stroke of genius was to take Lustig along, not only
as an interlocutor and philosophical foil, but also as a subject
in his own right. Unlike most survivor memoirs, which are basically
monologues, Fighter takes the form of a dialogue between two men
who, because of the radical difference between their personalities
and specific experiences, bring divergent perspectives to a shared
history of grief. Their on-camera arguments and reconciliations
reveal the life force that helped them survive (although nothing
helped so much as luck) and give a dramatic structure to the dialectic
between past and present.
"The motives for this trip are terribly sad, but we are going
to have a lot of fun," says Lustig as he and Wiener peruse maps
and make preparations. Both men emigrated to the U.S. in 1968 but
didn't become friends until 10 years later. While Wiener is defined
by an anger that his ramrod posture and stern demeanor barely keep
in check, Lustig, who is six years his junior and a prolific novelist,
is both warmer and more introspective. He survived Terezinstadt
and other camps, but, like Wiener, lost his parents and most of
his family. At the end of the war he joined the Party and, in Wiener's
eyes, remained a member far too long. It's the first bone of contention
between them, a suggestion that they're in for a rough trip.
Thanks to Lustig, the film has a generosity and antic humor. Like
his father, who made himself happy by laughing uproariously at Hitler's
radio speeches during the war, Lustig tries to see what he calls
"the sunny side." The one trauma he can't let go, he says, is the
thought of his father in the gas chamber. Wiener resents Lustig's
interpretative bent, and as the journey wears him down emotionally,
he takes out his anger on his friend.
Bar-Lev shot 50 hours of video, which he edited down to 85 minutes.
Fighter is probably more terse than it needs to be, but the dramatic
line has an elegance and drive that reinforces the unexpected turns
of the story. "No one who survived the war is normal," says Lustig.
"Maybe it's hard to be a fighter not in a time of war, but in a
time that created millions of indifferent people. Wiener was a hero."
POWERFUL, provocative and often surprisingly funny, this may be
the year's outstanding documentary. It bears witness to the quarrelsome
friendship of two Czech-American exiles, confrontational Jan Wiener
and philosophical Arnost Lustig, both Holocaust survivors (but not
victims) and professors. Together they retrace Wiener's escape from
Nazi-occupied Prague to Italy and finally to Britain where he joined
They also visit the labor camp to which Wiener was sentenced by
the Czech Communists after the war, and the concentration camp where
his mother was beaten to death by the SS. Along the way, the friends
laugh, schmooze and argue with intelligence and deadly seriousness
about morality, communism and revenge. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
Running time: 91 minutes. Not rated. At Lincoln Plaza.
New York Post
"There was never a trip like this," observes Arnost Lustig, one
of the two heroes of Amir Bar-Lev's exceptional Holocaust documentary,
"Fighter," at the Angelika. "The motives are terribly sad, but we
are going to have a lot of fun." And indeed, Bar-Lev has created
a film remarkable in its ability to capture both the worst and best
of human nature.
Czech-born Jews who emigrated to America after World War II, Lustig
and his friend Jan Wiener return to Europe to revisit the sites
of overwhelming personal tragedies. But the film is as much about
their present as their past. Utterly different in perspective, these
two charming, intelligent men process their experiences by prodding
each other -- and the audience -- into constantly shifting philosophical
The end result is a profoundly affecting, and essential, addition
to the canon of wartime histories.
New York Daily News
Fighter shapes up as one of the great documentaries of this year, or any other. Remarkable, when you consider that the subject of this film from Amir Bar-Lev is merely the travels of two garrulous old men. But what old men! They are Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, two Jewish friends who decide to retrace the route, from Prague to southern Italy, that marked Wiener's escape from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia during World War II. As they talk, remember, fight and bring the past to life through their words (and archival footage), a friendship is tested on a road trip like none other.
October 11, 2001
One of the most pernicious dangers for film critics is the burnout that comes from repetition. At some point, around one's fifth or 10th or 50th narrative about drug dealers in South Central or the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the subject matter itself becomes a barrier, though these are worlds with enough stories to generate hundreds of very different films. Unfortunately, what's usually generated are dozens of clones. The same, sad to say, is the problem with Holocaust documentaries. Thanks to a series of uninspired filmmakers -- in particularly Claude Lanzmann, who insisted that Shoah be as torturous and exhausting for his audience to watch as it was for him to make -- there are those among us who dread the prospect of yet one more such film.
Then along comes an item like Amir Bar-Lev's The Fighter, certainly one of the best films of the year so far. Not surprisingly, it's moving; but it's also endlessly engaging, uproariously funny at moments, informative, and eventually touching in ways one might not have expected. I laughed, I cried, I contemplated issues of history and ethics; more than that one cannot ask from a movie.
Bar-Lev convinced two old Holocaust survivors, Czech Jews in their 70s who both now teach in the United States, to return to Europe and revisit the locales of their wartime experiences. Jan Wiener, the title character, is the more charismatic figure: When he was a teenager his father taught him how to box so he could stand up to anti-Semitic bullies. When we meet him, 60 years later, at the age of 77, the dazzlingly handsome, fit Wiener is working out with a punching bag, still ready to stand up for himself.
Wiener's friend, 72-year-old Arnost Lustig, is in many ways the opposite: A gnomish figure with constantly twinkling eyes, Lustig -- who has written numerous books and screenplays -- is more reflective. You could picture Lustig and Wiener as a Catskills comedian and an Israeli soldier, respectively; the notion of reversing those roles would strike anyone, including the two men themselves, as hilarious.
When they leave for Europe, the men have been close but contentious friends for two decades. Although the idea is for both to retrace their youths, Lustig is there more as an observer and commentator; he has long intended on turning his friend's wartime exploits into a book. But each new episode along the way seems to start a fight: For Lustig, Wiener's life is raw material to be filtered through an analytical perspective. He also has the creative writer's instinct to embellish, to turn specifics into symbols of something greater -- all of which drives Wiener to fury.
Still in his teens, Wiener fled Czechoslovakia to Slovenia, leaving behind his mother, who eventually perished in a concentration camp. Declaring his possessions while applying for an exit visa, Wiener was told by a Czech bureaucrat, "Four pairs of shoes? Little Jew, you won't have time to wear out one!" For the next five years, Wiener kept himself going by nursing his desire to kill this man someday.
In Slovenia, Wiener lived with his father and his Aryan stepmother, but they too urged him to leave. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, they committed suicide -- even the stepmother, who could have walked away safe -- in order to free him to leave. He made his way to Italy, where he was arrested but spared being sent back to certain death. "I loved the Italians," he says. "In the camps, the punishment for flirting with German women was death. But the Italians, being Italians, would flirt with them anyway."
Eventually he reached England, where he joined the RAF and, with a few other Czech refugees, flew missions over Europe, but the end of the war was not the end of his troubles. After returning to Czechoslovakia -- and his dramatic reunion with the hated bureaucrat -- the communist government locked him up for five years, using his time with the RAF as proof that he must be a British spy. (It's like a more severe version of the insane McCarthyite charges leveled against Hollywood filmmakers after the war for having made pro-Soviet propaganda, such as Mission to Moscow, at the express request of the Roosevelt administration.)
Lustig was a member of the Communist Party, and Wiener harangues him for his participation. Lustig shrugs and says, "I didn't know. I never denounced anyone. I never harmed anyone. As soon as I found out about such things, I resigned." Later, out of earshot of Wiener, he tells director Bar-Lev, "You know this Wiener drives me crazy. He wants me to be clever from the time I was a baby! ...If he had been in the camps, he would have become a communist, too." And, indeed, while Wiener's story is more exciting, Lustig's is sadder: "My father would gather us around the radio to listen to Hitler and would laugh and laugh. He thought Hitler's speeches were hilarious; but Hitler was laughing longer than my father."
It's hard to know whether it is the differences in their wartime histories that make them such opposites; one suspects it's the other way around, that their temperaments had more to do with shaping their life paths. It was Wiener's already-developed drive to action that kept him one step ahead of the Nazis. (On the other hand, Lustig would have been too young to escape on his own, even if that had been his bent.) Yet neither man is the least bit melancholy. Both seem filled with a deep and rich appreciation of every moment of life, even having seen human behavior at its most evil and degraded.
What is most moving at the end is a narrative twist that is foreshadowed all along, and for which the very process of making the film is responsible. The angry fights between the two become too much; through decades of friendship, they have been able to cool off after a battle. But on their tight travel schedule, and obliged to discuss things on camera, Lustig's attempt to reshape Wiener's life through his own interpretive lens becomes too much for the latter. In the middle of dinner, he announces he's had enough of Lustig's nonsense, then pulls off his microphone, stomps out and swears never to talk to him again.
Filming stops abruptly. Giving up on any hope of writing his book, Lustig, always with the commentaries, once again shrugs and says, "No one who will survive the war is normal. It's impossible... I cannot say anything bad about Wiener. We are just too different for friendship... He is a hero of our time, of a time that creates millions of cowards." It is only through the press notes that we learn that, after two or three years, the break between the two has perhaps finally been mended -- a great relief. Within the framework of the film, the loss of friendship between two such appealing and memorable characters seems as sad as any of the larger material tragedies they have both survived.
October 25, 2001
Running From Hitler
Two men relive a great escape
Fighter, a humane and precociously wise documentary by the young Los Angeles director Amir Bar-Lev, accompanies two Czech-American Jewish émigrés in their 70s as they return to their native Prague to retrace the route that one of them, Jan Wiener, took to escape the Nazis. "The motive is sad," says his old friend Arnost Lustig, a respected author who lives in Washington, D.C., and who, as Fighter opens, plans to write Wiener’s story. "But we are going to have a lot of fun."
On the face of it, the two men’s lives are hardly suited for fun. After surviving the concentration camps and the loss of his family, Lustig spent some time in the Czech Communist Party before he cottoned to the fact that the Stalinists had simply repackaged fascism, at which point he fled to the United States. (His own escape was the subject of the 1964 Czech new-wave film Diamonds of the Night). Wiener, a university instructor who lives in Massachusetts, escaped from Prague through Yugoslavia to Italy, leaving a trail of sexual conquests that included, by his own enthusiastic account, the deflowering of a nun. He finished the war as a pilot for the British, then returned to Prague, where he languished for five years in a Communist prison for the crime of harboring "anti-people’s attitudes."
If its only purpose were to bear witness to the clash of two irreconcilable natures, Fighter would be dramatic and entertaining enough. An urbane and ironic Central European charmer, Lustig has a wider emotional range than his friend, and gives every impression of moving through life with the practiced ease of one who was forced to hone the skills of expediency and who learned from sour experience that "Morality is the child of necessity." Wiener, for his part, is rigid, combative, and increasingly enraged by Lustig’s speculative musings on the reasons for the direction his life has taken. What could one expect but rage from a man who was put in the position of holding his father’s hand as he committed suicide to avoid capture by the Nazis, and who now volunteers that all the while he was thinking, "Die fast, so I can run and save myself"? For all his palpable pride in his physique and his resilience -- at 77, this still-avid boxer remains an astonishingly handsome stud -- pathos clings to Wiener like moss. And for all that his carefully nurtured hatred of those who wronged him and his family has given him an iron will to survive, it has taken its toll in a lifelong insensitivity. Lustig saved himself from cynicism by means of the same gifts that made him a writer -- the flexibility to see a question from many different angles, along with a certain skepticism about the human capacity for goodness under duress. One of Fighter’s many virtues is that it moves the discussion beyond the facile victimology and bogus uplift that disfigure so many current accounts of the Holocaust. Both men have been as much deformed as enhanced by what it took to survive.
Still, the fractious sparring between the two men is often very funny -- until the moment when Fighter becomes not just a document of a great escape, but an accessory to the rupture of a friendship. Confronted with such a turn of events, many filmmakers would either throw up their hands or seize on a golden opportunity for exploitation. Bar-Lev is cool and tactful enough -- and a sufficiently adroit editor -- to allow the rift to unfold in all its heartbreaking, hilarious richness, while keeping it firmly anchored to the movie’s larger themes. In Fighter, the history of Czechoslovakia, a country that was handed to the Germans as a sop through the infamous Munich Agreement, and which then sacrificed and actively persecuted its Jews, speaks through its silences, a poisonous brew of forgetting and suppression: We see Wiener strolling wordlessly across the field of waving grass that now covers the former Theresienstadt concentration camp, where his mother was beaten to death. Elsewhere, as the two men swap tales of the horrors they endured, Bar-Lev shows us the unruffled beauty of contemporary Prague, or the impassive face of a bartender as he draws beer. Intended or not, the effect of this latter scene is to make us wonder how much the young man knows, or cares, about this inglorious chapter in his country’s history -- which bears as much responsibility for the destruction of the two men’s long friendship as do their incompatible natures.
collection of post-war memories, "Fighter" is a powerful, heartfelt
and funny docu that serves as a respectful nod to the aging survivors
of WWII. Director Amir Bar-Lev's feature debut gracefully examines
the hardened souls of victims and provides many uplifting moments
that will touch even the most cynical viewer. Pic should be a festival
fave, especially given the scarcity of quality non-fiction titles
available, and will surely get noticed from TV players looking for
"Fighter" is fueled by
extreme sadness, but its humor and optimism shine brightly. On this
unorthodox road trip, two European Jews who lived through Nazism
buddy up to recall death, torture and survival. But instead of dwelling
on their psychological wounds, Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig laugh,
bicker, schmooze and charm their way through a very violent past.
Role models don't come any bigger than Wiener. A 77-year-old who
lives in Lenox, Mass. and still boxes, the handsome Czech hooks
up with 72-year-old Arnost Lustig, a professor and author who has
decided to document his friend's life.
The men arrive in Prague,
and sorrow instantly surfaces. First, Wiener goes to an old office
where a collaborator told him that, as a child, he wouldn't live
to wear out one pair of shoes. Wiener then recounts that as a decorated
hero six years later, he eventually returned with an intent to kill.
They then begin a "tour": visiting the run-down labor site where
Wiener was imprisoned for five years; a Terezin ghetto and concentration
camp where Lustig spent his formative years and where Wiener's mother
was killed; and a stowaway route on which Wiener hid under a train
for 18 hours. They also retrace Wiener's escape route through Slovenia,
while he recounts his father's suicide. Project's final destinations
is Cosenza, Italy, a town full of people who helped him to flee.
Everything about "Fighter"
is a lesson in courage and compassion. Wiener and Lustig are certainly
casualties who deserve to have grudges, but their desire for inner
peace has, over time, squashed any hatred they've harbored. Bar-Lev
constantly draws attention to that durable moral fiber, beautifully
capturing conversations that always end with a joke or a smile.
Even when they fight - shooting stopped for four days after an argument
- they eventually meet up on the beach for a game of chess.
is sound all around. Pristine footage from propaganda films, including
Hitler's "The Fuhrer Gives A City To The Jews," are used to great
effect; d.p. Gary Griffin does terrific work with some difficult
and dark locations; and well chosen classical music selections heighten
much of the emotion.
FESTIVALS: Newport 2000
"Fighter" and "George
Washington" -- Two Award Winners That Deserved It
Best Documentary award-winner
"Fighter" is an extraordinary and moving recounting of a pair of
extraordinary lives, told by the men that lived them. Jan Wiener
and Arnost Lustig, two Czech Jews persecuted by the Nazis during
WWII return to Europe in 1998 to retrace Wiener's six-year journey
across Europe -- a trek in which Wiener escaped occupied Prague
on foot, walked through Yugoslavia to Italy where he continued his
odyssey clinging to the bottom of a railway car. Wiener spent time
in an Italian P.O.W. camp (a preferable alternative to the concentration
camp endured by Lustig) before escaping and making it to England
where he joined the Royal Air Force and helped to liberate his homeland
from the Nazis. Along the way, the pasts of both Jan and Arnost
are opened up and examined, bringing their disparate personalities
into focus, and their respective ability to survive the war as they
Newport nudes: Local
film festival gets exposure
Unless you love skiing
and the worst kind of shmoozing, why bother with the Sundance Film
Festival each January? It becomes clearer each year that few of
the much-hyped films that premiere there actually pan out. Maybe
four or five are okay, and they're shown at other festivals and
get put into distribution. But what I find more damning of Sundance
(and I have to confess I've never been there), and proof of the
impoverished taste of the selectors, is the number of estimable
American films that they don't choose to show.
Just look at what happened
this year at Newport. The deserving jury winners for Best Feature
and Best Documentary -- David Gordon Green's George Washington
and Amir Bar-Lev's Fighter -- were both rejected by Sundance.
How could that be? George Washington is an amazing American
regional indie shot in rural North Carolina with a sublime ensemble
of black children and adolescents, a gentle tale of an accidental
death that was influenced by the great African-American filmmaker
Charles Burnett. Fighter is an extraordinary journey across
Europe by Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, two septuagenarian Jewish
refugees from Naziism and Czechoslovak Communism. They talk, more
often they quarrel, and their conversations are the tastiest and
most thrillingly philosophical since Wally Shawn sat down with Andre
Gregory for My Dinner with Andre.
COMPROMISE? The conversations between Jan and Arnoŝt are a match for those of Wally and Andre.
When I caught Amir Bar-Lev’s Fighter (opening at the Coolidge Corner this Friday, November 23) at last year’s Newport Film Festival, it was staggering on jelly legs, having been rebuffed by a host of prestigious film festivals, including Sundance. But a much-deserved triumph at Newport for Best Documentary started a late-round comeback. Suddenly, film festivals everywhere were asking to show this wonderful movie, and First Run Features was agreeing to distribute it. Something I wrote in passing in the Phoenix became part of the early publicity: that the running conversations between Czech-Jewish American emigres Jan Wiener and Arnoŝt Lustig — concerning history, philosophy, politics, family, morality — are the most savory and inspired in a film since the over-supper chit-chat 15 years ago between Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre.
Several Fighter viewings hence, I stick to my hyperbole about the energizing pleasure in eavesdropping on discourse this brilliant, funny, and enlightening. The kind of mini-parable with which Milan Kundera self-consciously salts The Unbearable Lightness of Being is what tumbles naturally from the lips of our two protagonists.
Let me introduce them as they appear in the movie. Arnoŝt Lustig, 72, is a teacher at American University and a much-published novelist who faces life with a crinkly-eyed smile and is amused by mankind’s vulnerabilities and failings as much as by our heroic successes. A concentration-camp survivor, he served in Czechoslavakia’s post-war Communist bureaucracy, though his Marxist idealism was put to test as he became aware of the horrors perpetrated by the Stalinist government. He avows that he never sold anyone out, and Wiener believes this about him. Nevertheless, he paid lip service to the Communist regime. A man needs to eat, to get by.
Or does he? Not if he’s Jan Wiener, the compulsive "fighter" of the title. He’s 78, lean and mean, Errol Flynn–handsome, with a beautiful snowy mane and moustache, and he’s spent a lifetime refusing to back down about anything anywhere. While Lustig worked and resided in Communist Prague, Wiener was breaking rocks in a harsh Czech prison. A pilot battling Hitler for Britain’s Royal Air Force, he was arrested after the war when he went home to Czechoslovakia — framed by Communist police, who accused him of spying for England. Wiener being Wiener, he wouldn’t sign a paper admitting anything, even as he was beaten and jailed.
And this is the essential debate between these septuagenarians: can a life be led totally without compromise? For Lustig, small accommodations are part and parcel of being in civilization. For Wiener, principle is everything, at all times, and there’s no place in his heart for forgiveness of transgressors, even as the years pass. So Lustig is reminded forever by an accusatory Wiener that he was "part of the club" in the Czech 1950s: guilty, guilty!
They have been great friends in the United States, but their amity crumbles on camera in the process of traveling to Europe to make Fighter. Lustig and Wiener had signed on to participate in a road-movie documentary, retracing Wiener’s Hitchcockian escape in the 1940s from the Germans, in which among other happenings he fled through Italy riding underneath a train. As they travel from Prague southward, the two quarrel bitterly. Somewhere in Italy, Wiener abruptly divorces himself from the movie. A saddened Lustig has the final thought: "Fighters are good in time of war, maybe not in time of peace, We are too different for friendship."
June 29, 2000
Digital Video West, from the Personal to the Derivative
Next Wave also weighed
in with the Holocaust doc "Fighter," about two Czech-Jewish survivors
who retrace their steps through Europe. Taking a page from Alain
Resnais' train track obsession in "Night and Fog," one of the survivors
actually looks down at the tracks he had helped build, chuckling
amazingly, without knowing at the time that they led to Auschwitz.
The joy of director Amir Bar-Lev's work is the utter unobtrusiveness
of it all. While more and more fiction filmmakers are turning to
DV to capture the intimacies of life relationships, Bar-Lev proves
that DV is not only economically advantageous but also aesthetically
preferable for doc filmmakers. The film recalls none of the formalistic
rigor of Errol Morris or the above-mentioned Resnais work, and the
informality (loosely shot and edited) is a wonderful antithesis
to so many button-pushing Holocaust pieces.
April 19, 2000
A pair of old war
hands regale each other with exploits that fascinate modern-day
In Central Europe, the
past is never far away.
Karlovy Vary, the Bohemian
spa town that hosts the annual International Film Festival, is better
known to an older generation as Karlsbad. Browse among antique shops
here and you can still find sinister reminders of the war years,
such as Nazi steel helmets left over by retreating German forces
The annual film bash
may be a festive, modern affair, but the documentary competition
section reminded audiences of the darker side of human nature.
Most popular with the
audiences, if not the judges, despite a special mention, was the
debut feature-length documentary of Los Angeles based director Amir
Bar-Lev. "Fighter" tells the story of two elderly Czech Jewish émigrés,
Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig. Both men left Czechoslovakia, following
the 1968 Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, for America, where
they met and became friends.
The film follows the
pair as they retrace the war-time escape route from Prague taken
by Wiener, who fled the German occupation to join the Czech forces
in Britain where, after many incredible experiences, including a
spell in an Italian prison, he flew bombers for the Royal Air Force.
Lustig's war was different.
He and his family were sent to concentration camps, where many died.
Wiener's family also suffered: His father and German stepmother
committed suicide in Yugoslavia on the day of the Nazi invasion,
and his natural mother was murdered in the Theriesenstadt concentration
Bar-Lev's original idea
to shoot a straightforward documentary following the feisty Wiener's
path from Prague got diverted by the increasingly dramatic tension
between the two old friends, who manage to agree on virtually nothing
about their experiences.
Wiener criticizes Lustig
for having been a member of the Communist Party; Lustig, the celebrated
Czech writer, rankles at Wieners literal take on events, imagining
the reasons why various different people helped or did not hinder
Wieners escape. Wiener, an abrasive 80 year-old, can't stand
what he considers a load of poppycock.
The day after "Fighters"
final screening at Karlovy Vary, Jan Wiener had two serious strokes.
"The good news," says Bar-Lev, "Is that, true to form, Jan is making
what the doctors there are calling a miraculous recovery.
The night of his strokes, his left side was completely paralyzed.
By a week later, he was taking short walks out of his bed, joking
and planning on being at work in the fall.
"Arnost Lustig was in
town but held off on visiting because Jan said that seeing Arnost
would finish him off completely. Arnost instead sent two women with
flowers and a letter that, to the best of our recollection, began:
Honza, [a diminutive for Jan] Honzichku! Don't do this to
me. You're scaring me! If you're gone, who will I be able to anger
"He finished the letter:
'I kiss your ass, because that is the only part of your body I am
worthy of kissing.' Jan promptly asked that Arnost be allowed to
August 1, 2000
Hot Button : Toronto and Telluride
The second film I saw
today was a thrilling surprise. It was a documentary called Fighter
and it was easily the best documentary I've seen this year. All
year. The film is the work of three American students who went to
the Prague Film Academy, director Amir Bar-Lev and his producers
Jonathan Crosby and Alex Mamet. The movie is the story of two men,
Europe, World War II and a long friendship made in America based
on the shared-apart experiences of their youths.
Jan Wiener is 77 and
fought his way through the entire era, never bending from his principles
for a moment, escaping the communists as readily as he escaped the
Nazis. Arnost Lustig is 72 and he survived the war by his wits,
but then joined the communist movement in Czechoslovakia when he
considered it a philosophy that the best people connected with.
The two men head back to Europe to trace the life history of Wiener
and prod, push and piss one another off throughout the entire trip.
The film reminded me
of an Errol Morris documentary, with the kind of intimacy that eludes
so many docs. Morris makes this magic with all kinds of wondrous
tricks. All Bar-Lev needed, short of a lot of hard work, was this
dynamic duo. The pair is remarkably well matched. They respect one
another, yet feel no need to pull punches. They bring out the best
and the worst in one another. So, with each of them doing the prodding,
you get a remarkably truthful portrait of both.
I don't mean to diminish
Bar-Lev's work here. This documentary crosses all the visual "T"s
and dots all the questioning "I"s. He and his crew do a really nice
job of getting all on film and maintaining a clear narrative. You
can't tell what a director's second film might be like based on
a first film. Especially here, where the subjects are so powerful.
But I hope that we are seeing the beginning of a great documentary
When I call it the best
documentary of the year, I have to make special mention of Ken Burns'
Jazz. Burns' film is a whole different animal. First, it was made
with TV in mind, as so many festival docs now are. But more importantly,
it is almost 19 hours long, telling an expansive story in glorious
detail, even though some say that Burns could have added another
20 hours and still come up short of the full story of Jazz. So be
it. I love Jazz, the movie and the art musical form. But as a stand-alone,
Fighter is the one. Given the Academy's propensity for Holocaust-related
docs, this one seems a sure bet for a nomination and a real possibility
to win Best Documentary next March.
September 14, 2000