A film by Mariusz Kotowski (director of
A review by David Gasten
The Holocaust Movie is now officially a genre movie, with over 400 titles and counting. Both the years 2008 and 2009 saw an onslaught of big-budget Hollywood Holocaust Movies timed to play theaters at the end of the year in hopes of winning an Oscar because of the Pavlovian sympathy that the subject seems to elicit.
However, movie-watching audiences seem to come to point where they feel the subject of the Holocaust is being exploited a means to an end, rather than as an honest way to tap into the stories that Holocaust survivors and their descendants have to tell. Maybe the most influential and quoted current opinion piece on this subject is by Jewish author Stewart Klawans, which is appropriately entitled “Saying ‘Never Again’ To Holocaust Movies.”
Holocaust Movie survivors have endured silly, clichéd stories about happy concentration campers and wannabe Hitler assassins, and soft-core porn-riddled stories that are tied into the Holocaust for Oscar appeal, when they were hoping to see a Holocaust movie that was genuine and actually tapped into the stories of the period. And now, the movie that they really wanted to see is finally here: Esther’s Diary, the Holocaust Movie To End All Holocaust Movies.
What Makes Esther’s Diary Seem So Genuine?
In this behind-the-scenes short subject, director Mariusz Kotowski discusses the stories that his Polish Catholic grandparents told him which inspired the story of Esther's Diary. The uncommonly genuine vibe of this Holocaust movie comes across in the interviews with the cast members as well as the interview footage with director Kotowski.
Esther’s Diary manages to feel genuine and real instead of exploitive and fake because the stories that it tells are actually a composite of the many stories that director Mariusz Kotowski heard from his Polish Catholic grandparents. Kotowski’s grandparents were involved in hiding Jews from their German oppressors during World War II; they still live in Poland and are currently in their nineties. Polish Catholics and Polish Jews lived together peaceably for 500 years, so when the Nazis began seeking out Jews in Poland to haul away to concentration camps, their Polish Catholic neighbors worked to protect them, hiding them in cellars and procuring food for them. One of these “cellar stories” became an important device that Esther's Diary's plot is based upon.
Atop this, Mark Chait, a Jewish man from Australia whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, scored the movie. These first-generation connections with the Holocaust give the movie an urgency and realism that Oscar-baiting Holocaust movies with ten times the budget could not hold a candle to.
A Fifty-Year follow-up to Night And Fog
A thirty-two second clip of the infamous Night and Fog (1955), featuring some of its less disturbing imagery. This clip features an example of how color footage was contrasted with black and and white footage, a pattern which Esther's Diary follows in.
Esther’s Diary works as a 50-year follow-up to the classic short subject Night and Fog (Nuit et Broulliard, 1955). The 30-minute French documentary was filmed a little over a decade after the story of the Holocaust was uncovered and leaked to the world, and juxtaposes color footage of the overgrown ruins of the German concentration camps with disturbing imagery of the sadistic structures, skeleton-like bodies, and rotting corpses inside the camps.
The old adage says “Time heals all wounds”, and Night and Fog and Esther’s Diary sample two places and time periods, together showing both the nature of the wound and how it has healed over the years. Like Night and Fog, Esther’s Diary juxtaposes black and white footage with color footage to differentiate the two different periods.
At five different points in Esther’s Diary, the movie dissolves into a narrative about the camps as seen though the eyes of Esther Horn, the title character. Three of these narratives are accompanied by holocaust footage procured from the Auschwitz State Museum in Germany, some of which comes from the exact same source material as the footage in Night and Fog. Although only 2 ½ minutes of Holocaust footage is in Esther’s Diary, it is moving enough that it seems like there is about three times as much as there is.
Esther’s Diary Plot Outline
One of a number of walking scenes, which feature two women, and are interwoven to show that the two ladies are slowly gravitating toward finding each other.
The beginning of Esther’s Diary cuts between two women who are walking and walking, as if unknowingly trying to find each other. Black and white footage of a little girl wandering through a forest confirms this. We learn that one woman, Maria Patterson, is a teacher by day and a radio show host by night, and is happily married (so she thinks) to a touring orchestra musician named Jeff. The other is a successful architect named Sarah Blumenfeld. Sara’s mother, Esther Horn-Blumenfeld, died just two weeks prior, and willed her a memoir of her past experiences as a child in a German concentration camp.
Sarah and Maria start working their way into each other’s lives via an old woman in a rest home named Apollonia Kowalski. As the story unfolds, we learn that Apollonia is Maria’s mother and was Esther’s (Sarah’s mother’s) best friend. Both Sarah and Maria had cold, distant relationships with their mothers, which largely stemmed from the trauma the Holocaust brought into the two older women’s lives. Sarah meets Apollonia in person, and accidentally stumbles upon Apollonia’s greatest regret: an incident where she accidentally leaked the information about Esther and her family’s whereabouts to the Germans, which led to the family being led away to the camp. The resurfacing of this incident arrives just in time to allow Maria and Apollonia to open up to each other and the two daughters to find each other and come together, just as tragedy strikes Maria twice in a row and alters her life forever.
Realistic, Loveable Characters
The cast of Esther's Diary talk in depth about the characters in the movie. Interviewees include Juli Erickson (Apollonia, the Pola Negri-based character), Sydney Barrossee (Sarah), Wilbur Penn (Clayton, pictured above), and Dell Aldrich (the narrative voice of Esther).
Director Kotowski and scriptwriter Allan Knee spent a lot of time developing realistic, loveable on-screen characters for Esther’s Diary in a day and age when many movie characters are as shallow, thin, and detached from real life as the industry people who create them. Maria is an everyday heroine with a combination of strengths and vulnerabilities that causes you to fall in love with her. Sarah Blumenfeld is a searching, unhappy professional like many you’ve probably met in your life. Clayton, Maria’s co-worker, is a wisecracking white-collar African-American with lovable black-culture charm and humor. His quick-witted bantering with Maria is an outer symptom of a soft spot he has in his heart for her—the same soft spot Maria claims in the viewer’s heart over the course of the movie.
Even Jeff, Maria’s estranged husband, does not fall into the cowardly, John Ritter cliché that many male characters fall into in today’s movies. You can absolutely see why both Maria and Jeff's younger mistress are so in love with him, and why Maria is so trusting of him. He is strong and “man-of-his-word” masculine to the point that it seems out of character for him to jilt Maria for some girl in the orchestra.
The Pola Negri Character
The character Apollonia Kowalski, played by Juli Erickson, is heavy inspired by Pola Negri.
By far the most important character in the movie is Apollonia Kowalski, the Polish woman in the nursing home whose Holocaust secret gets sprung about halfway into the movie. We are aware of her as a ghost-like off-screen figure until she makes a dramatic entrance 20 minutes into the movie. The Apollonia character is important to Pola Negri fans because she is a character in a modern-day movie that directly and heavily inspired by Pola Negri.
One of Kotowski’s notable previous films was the 2006 Life is a Dream in Cinema documentary about Pola Negri. Kotowski purposely created in Apollonia a character that he felt Pola would enjoy playing as an old woman, and endowed the character with many of Pola’s real-life attributes. He chose an actress, Juli Erickson, that physically looks like Pola in many ways. And most noticeably, he named the character Apollonia, which the name “Pola” is a contraction of, and draws attention to the name throughout the movie. I don’t think there is another contemporary movie character that is this inspired by Pola, so this in and of itself makes the movie of interest to Pola Negri fans.
Landing People Together
Early in the movie, the character Sarah Blumenfeld walks past a service mark on the wall at her architectural firm that reads: “Landing. People. Together.” Bringing people together was director Kotowski’s passion and focus throughout this movie. Again, this goes back to his Polish roots, when his Polish Catholic grandparents hid their Jewish neighbors from the Nazi authorities.
Sarah praying in her synagogue. In the film, Sarah is Jewish and Maria is a Roman Catholic.
In the movie, Maria is a Catholic and Sarah is a Jew, and both of them are seen in their respective church and synagogue performing religious rites and finding solace in those rites. And yet, when they come together as friends, their religious differences doesn’t seem to bother them at all, just as was the case with their parents. Their search for love and quest to find meaning in life, conditions that we all share, is what brings them together, as does their shared Polish heritage.
Being a bicultural Polish-American, director Kotowski also worked to bring the Polish and American cultures together via the reconciliation between Maria and Apollonia. Maria is fully American and feels no ties to Poland whatsoever, whereas Apollonia is strongly Polish in every way. Part of the reconciliation comes when Apollonia asks Maria to take her to Poland with her, and Maria agrees to do so. Another part is when Apollonia opens her terrible secret up to Maria. There is a sense of universal humanity that comes out in this incident that reaches across time and between countries, and brings the two together where there was fighting and bickering before.
Attention to Detail in the Cinematography
Watching this movie, one can’t help but think, “The filmmakers have literally thought of everything!” Not only is there an incredible amount of detail in the story and the characters, but the photography also has a depth and attention to detail that keeps the movie consistently absorbing.
Director Kotowski’s love for old movies and his European background inform his directorial style, and give his work a depth that many other filmmakers lack. Kotowski and his cameramen experiment with many cinematic looks and styles, but bring everything together in a way that is cohesive and underscores the narrative. The visuals bring even more interest and substance to the story without getting in the way and turning the movie into a pretentious art film.
One of the many beautifully-photographed scenes in Esther's Diary, this one being where Maria's cheating husband Jeff is waiting for his mistress at a nightclub. Jeff's character (played by Jamie Goodwin) is atypically gentlemanly to the point that his infidelity seems out of character for him.
The most noticeable cinematography technique Kotowski uses is the black and white footage of the little girls running through the forest. This footage is overlaid with scratch lines and given the occasional jump cut to make it look like old footage. Although this has become a relatively common device today, weaved into the narrative it seems natural, and relates the plot device of the little girls running through the forest, one trying to find her friend, and the other trying in vain to run from her captors.
Kotowski opens the film with clever CGI opening credits that dissolves from Stars of David and crosses overlaid on ghostly stills of the concentration camps. He then inserts documentary-like panning shots of a graveyard, before focusing on a headstone that looks like it came from a black-and-white 1940's movie. The nightclub scene where we learn that Maria’s husband Jeff is cheating on her features hard lighting and a red velvet curtain background, which we associate with modern recreations of the class of the mid-1900’s. The dialogue scenes between Maria and Apollonia have a slightly grainy analog look with a yellowish tint that we associate with late 1980’s dramas. And the lively banter between Clayton and Maria in the office setting features equally lively color oversaturation. And yet all of this variety seems natural and does not get in the way of the film itself.
I would recommend watching Esther’s Diary back to back with Night and Fog since the two films complement each other both in cinematographic style and as a quasi-historical narrative. It will make for a powerful evening of movie watching, and will allow you to look back on the period, hear some of the stories, and walk away with perspective on the Holocaust, instead of feeling exploited and pandered to so that somebody could get their Oscar.
The cast of Esther's Diary talks about working with director Mariusz Kotowski, and both the cast and director offer parting thoughts about the affect of the Holocaust on later generations.