A Life Story as a Motive and a Cause

author Branko Lustig
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Željko Luketić

PDF Download: Click here.

Interviewed in Zagreb 8 July 2013


Producer Branko Lustig lived on two addresses, in Los Angeles and Zagreb, for a long time and there he enjoyed the most important moments of his career. His return to Zagreb occurred without a fuss and inconspicuously, as it fits the profession of a film producer, whose work on a film is crucial, but also invisible to the wider public. A rich life history of this film maker who has won two Oscars can hardly be told in one interview since the story about Lustig is not only the story of a man from Osijek who survived the atrocities of Auschwitz and made it to Hollywood, but also the reflection on a life-long activism of someone who felt the violation of human rights on his own skin and now feels fulfilled when he educates the youngest members of the society. It is said that history is taught so that it would not repeat itself. On this occasion we learn about the parts of history which set the course of his artistic work; from his start in Jadran film to the golden period of Yugoslav co-productions and a huge international success and friendship with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and other famous film makers. Currently, Lustig also teaches at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb and is the founder and honorary president of the Jewish Film Festival.


ORIS: When I recently saw the movie Ne okreći se, sine (Don’t Look Back, My Son), one of the most important movies of the Croatian film industry, which in some of its best sequences even reminds me of Rosselini’s movies from the 1940s, I saw your name as executive producer on the closing credits. I realized that you had a double public role: you were a film maker but you also enlightened and educated those who, in the German speaking world, are called die Nachgeborenen. What did it mean to you at the time?


Lustig: I would like to stop here a bit to say a few words about what you mention, die Nachgeborenen, which means those born subsequently, later or after. Ne okreći se, sine was made in 1956, which means this was exactly 57 years ago, and it is very sad that here today, in Our Beautiful Homeland, there are still those who are the Nachgeborenen, people who are born after and have no idea what has happened, but who, and that is most disturbing, are not interested in the history at all. My colleague and I walked around the city and stopped young people in the street, at the Ban Jelačić Square, and asked them: Do you know what Holocaust is? Do you know who the Partisans are? Do you know what anti-fascism is? We were shocked that almost 80% of the people didn’t know the answer to those questions. Ne okreći se, sine is, as you have mentioned, very similar to Rosselini’s movies; it is because Branko Bauer was influenced by Rosselini and his movies like Tri Ane (Three Girls Named Ana), Ne okreći se, sine, Samo ljudi (Only People), Boško Buha, were indirectly influenced by Italian Neorealism. These movies showed that Branko Bauer was one of our best film directors. Besides, he was a very good man. I remember Ne okreći se, sine because it was the start for me. I began working in the Croatian or, at that time, Yugoslav film industry, but although the production house Jugoslavija film used to decide in advance which movies were going to be bought, there was always a Croatian film. I remember a great anecdote from Ne okreći se, sine. Assistant director, Simo Dubajić, who worked for Branko Bauer, was an extreme nationalist. When I joined the film crew, he said: Branko, we don’t need this Jew! If only Hitler had burned him! I was very surprised when Štef Draganić, the deputy president of the communist organisation of Zagreb film workers, promptly removed him from the crew. It is important that Branko Bauer immediately called Draganić and told him that he did not that man to stay only because he was a member of the Communist Party. Those are the memories I have from Ne okreći se, sine. In the final scene, when there is a motorcycle spinning, which everybody thinks is a brilliant idea, what in effect happened was that the handlebars broke and came off, and the motorcycle stopped at the end of the forest and started spinning. It was an excellent scene.


ORIS: What year is considered to be the beginning of the production-driven film industry in our country, 1956?


Lustig: Well, in 1956 film industry was still owned by the state and Jadran film received funds from the Ministry of Culture. Back then, a lot of dramaturges were employed. Young dramaturges who graduate from the Academy today have no job because our young film directors do not need dramaturges; they are both film directors and dramaturges, which is wrong.


ORIS: At that time movies had their dramaturges, and later, film industry was considered to be author-driven because film directors did everything, even wrote scripts.


Lustig: Yes, but it depends on the director. Vatroslav Mimica always wrote his own scripts, whereas Veljko Bulajić never did so, and they are contemporaries. Veljko Bulajić’s scripts were written by his brother – Stevo Bulajić.


ORIS: How come that Jadran film cooperated with Italian film artists?


Lustig: Veljko Vlahović, secretary of the Central Committee of the Croatian Communist Party and Togliatti, secretary of the Communist Party of Italy, met and agreed that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the Communist Party of Italy would together make a movie which would be directed by the communist Guiseppe de Santis. There were so-called Red Barons in Italy at the time; sort of snobs who entered the Communist Party. They had villas on Monte Mario in Rome and special studios where dramaturges worked for them. Zavattini, Ugo Piro and Elio Petri were among them. The movie we made for the communist parties of the two countries was very good. This movie, Cesta duga godinu dana (The Road a Year Long), started very strange for me. Ivo Vrhovec, who had recently joined Jadran film, called me and asked whether I knew Italian. When I said I did not, he told me: You will now! They sent me to Vinogradska Street where there was a lady who taught Italian and I went to see her every day for a month. When Guiseppe arrived, he was surprised that I spoke Italian so well. Even today my Italian is so good that everyone thinks I am from Rome. That is how I ended up working with Guiseppe de Santis. In the movie, I was neither an executive producer, nor a production designer; I was a jack-of-all-trades and constantly with Guiseppe, so when the movie was completed, he took me to Italy where I worked in De Paolis Studios. I was an ispettore di produzione, which is actually a production designer, and I made two movies there. I also met Liana Orfei, fell in love with her and brought her circus to Zagreb in around 1963. This was my circus adventure for which I am not sorry because I learned a lot about organization. I also learned a lot about organization from the Germans because before the movie Ne okreći se, sine I worked with them on a German movie. Unbelievable, I who was in a concentration camp!



ORIS: Where were those co-productions shot?


Lustig: In Zagreb, Vojvodina. We were making a movie at Palić Lake, near Subotica. I had just graduated from the Academy; it was in 1955, my last year. I was called from Jadran film and I ended up in the film industry.


ORIS: You graduated acting from the Academy?


Lustig: Yes, I graduated acting. I was already hired by the Zagreb Drama Theatre (today Gavella City Drama Theatre). Gavella was very fond of me, although everyone tends to say that for themselves today. He really liked me and we always quarrelled. I was also a master of ceremony at film screenings; that was my first contact with film. I would say something like: Dear Comrades, I would like to present the authors of the film – Antun Nalis, etc. Once I was in the movie theatre Balkan giving closing remarks for the movie Plavi 9 (Blue 9). When I got out, I was approached by the director of Jadran film, comrade Kunkera, who asked me whether I spoke Hungarian. When I confirmed, they asked me whether I spoke German and I said that I did. They asked me then whether I wanted to work in the film industry. I replied that I needed to come back by September for the beginning of the theatre season. In the movie which was shot at Palić Lake, I was first an interpreter. The film which is a cult film in Germany today, starring a very famous actress Liselotte Pulver and actor Gunnar Möller, was called Ich denke oft an Piroschka (I Often Think of Piroschka). By the end of shooting, I became a production designer since I already knew everybody and all who worked on the set were my friends. I slowly became a film worker. I returned to Zagreb, worked on Ne okreći se, sine and then on Samo ljudi (Only People) with Branko Bauer.


ORIS: You also worked with Radley Metzger – on the movie Score?


Lustig: That is the second part of my career; I already started doing co-productions. I didn’t speak English well before I came to America; then I really invested a lot of effort. I started working with famous directors and I really got along well with them, especially with Orson Welles. Jadran film sent me then to Scott Bay, where Radley Metzger, one of the best American directors at the time, was making the famous The Opening of Misty Beethoven.


ORIS: It was in effect a pornographic film?


Lustig: It was more of an art film. If you search the Internet for Radley Metzger, you will find that Misty Beethoven is a cult film. Metzger also did Score, and score can have a double meaning. It was not a porn film but it was on the borderline; it had a gay and a lesbian subject matter. It was a very amusing, a very interesting movie.


ORIS: Radley Metzger allegedly always made two versions of his movies; a soft version for the movie theatres and the other hardcore version?


Lustig: True. There were two versions for special clubs. We cooperated very well. He did not even have to think because I knew what had to be done. He gave me to read a script about the life of Evita Peron, Little Mother. I said: Why not, let’s do it! Željko Senečić was a set designer. We cobbled it up in Zagreb in some six weeks, with Hardy Krüger’s daughter. We shot some porn scenes, especially in Mihanovićeva Street, in the basement with the pools. There were naked girls and naked men. It was supposed to portray the officer’s club where Evita met Peron.



ORIS: Did you have any problems with moral or some other issues? Did anyone complain?


Lustig: We shot it there and no one knew about it.


ORIS: I do not think it could be done today.


Lustig: No one knew. I smuggled the negative of the movie Evita to New York in a suitcase. We didn’t register it; the movie couldn’t be shown. Metzger then blackmailed the Argentinean Government and sold them the movie. I believe he made a copy, he was a very cunning man and I believe that he actually sold them a copy for a lot of money.


ORIS: There were no official censorship or film ratings in Yugoslavia at the time?


Lustig: There was no censorship in Yugoslavia. When a movie was made, the commission of the Central Committee would see it in the basement in Katančićeva Street where Croatia film is still situated. Screenings for the members of the commission took place in that basement; they would see the movie and rated it, and the late Kruno Simon would simultaneously interpret the movies. Ratings determined the amount of money a film would receive. Co-production manager of Jadran film landed good contracts in Italy. A lot of horses had to be acquired for those co-productions; I went to Čakovec and bought 481 horses. We brought them to the Hippodrome in Zagreb, where we built stables and started shooting movies with big stars. We also made movies in the beautiful landscape of Mokrice and Brežice in Slovenia. Guys had no transport so they would ride from Brežice to Zagreb and we would prepare meals on the road. Those were great times. If a horse had been injured, we would have shot it and saved the meat in fridges for salamis. So the Italians had very good salamis when Italian films were shot in Yugoslavia.


ORIS: You mentioned that movies were screened in Katančićeva Street. When something was forbidden or the permit was denied, was this done in writing or orally?


Lustig: Jadran film would receive compensation from the Minister of Culture and that was it.


ORIS: I remember that when you came to Jadran film, Nikša Fulgosi made the movie Mala Jole (Little Jole) which was also withdrawn. Later, bigger productions followed – often directed by Veljko Bulajić. Rumour has it that Bulajić himself went to companies and collected money for his movies.


Lustig: That is true; he collected money, sponsors. He was mostly a state director and had a state sponsor for every movie he made.


ORIS: He actually did the job of a producer?


Lustig: Yes. He also produced his movies. I personally think that Veljko Bulajić is one of rare directors, not including Bauer, who is a director of international scale. He does not deserve the treatment he is receiving here, he is underrated. His movie Vlak bez voznog reda (Train Without a Timetable) is one of the best neorealist movies.



ORIS: Can you clarify how foreign film companies came to Croatia? Did they approach you or vice versa?


Lustig: It was a big political moment. The Iron Curtain was a great opportunity for Jadran film and Avala film. Jadran film made a better use of it than Avala. Any movie with a script which took place in Prague, Budapest, Ukraine or anywhere else where movies could not be made at the time was shot in Croatia. We were very good; Senečić was a brilliant set designer, so was Tadej. We would get permits for filming anywhere in Zagreb with no problem and we would close shops without people being able to complain because of the loss of profit. Lina Wertmüller came, and with her Giancarlo Giannini, an actor whom I befriended. He became one of my best friends. When I was filming Hannibal with Anthony Hopkins, I persuaded Ridley Scott to cast Giancarlo Giannini for the role of the inspector. Thanks to Sulejman Kapić , Jadran film put some of the profits into the fund for the Croatian film industry, for movies which were made in Zagreb. Those were the golden days of the Croatian film industry. At the time we had professionals; make-up artists, mask makers, wardrobe assistants, prop managers; we built it all ourselves. When I was shooting the Gladiator, I went to London and on the set saw many Croatians who moved to England and became make-up artists.


ORIS: The Gladiator leads us to your American career. It would be interesting to hear from you how it happened, about your entry into the American film industry.


Lustig: My entry into the American film industry is very simple. Basically, I cannot say that it was because of my knowledge. I definitely did not know more than my American colleagues, but I was very fortunate. I met the right people at the right time. The movie Fiddler on the Roof helped, as well as the hit series Winds of War and War and Remembrance.


ORIS: Did the movie Sophie’s Choice help?


Lustig: Exactly, Sophie’s Choice as well. But these two series helped a great deal. I came to the States and hbo immediately hired me to do a tv film for them. It was the first film I produced. Then the series was broadcast, my name would appear on the screen every night, I won an Emmy and some other awards and that was actually how I started. I was lucky again because I applied for the Spielberg Studio but he did not even want to see me. Katy Kennedy, who is a producer today and was a secretary at the time, decided to see me. I waited two years to be called and then they gave me the script of Schindler’s List. I was fortunate to meet Steven and talk to him; instead of five minutes his secretary gave me, we talked for an hour and a half, became friends and I worked for him and won an Oscar. Peterson did not want to direct the Gladiator, we recommended Ridley and he accepted the offer. I went to see Ridley, he liked me and our marriage lasted for eight years until we had a row.



ORIS: Let us change the course of our conversation. Since you mentioned Schindler’s List (this year is the 20th anniversary of the movie), it might be good to talk about that important part of your biography, your childhood in the concentration camp. I have noticed a certain parallelism with Imre Kertész, the author of the novel Fateless. One of the characteristics of the novel is that it represents a development of the Holocaust, or fascist repression, as a disease which starts with seemingly harmless symptoms. First, he cannot go to the same school as others, then they take them to do some work, then his father unexpectedly disappears and he suddenly ends up in Auschwitz. Are there any parallels with your story?


Lustig: No, there aren’t any. It is interesting that you mentioned Kertész. About two days ago I received an email in which a director/writer from Budapest informs me about Ms Julie Orringer who has written the book Invisible Bridge and is asking me whether I would like to do the movie with him. My friend Koltai Lajosh, a film director who was the director of photography in the movie White Palace, would direct the movie, and Imre Kertész supports the project. But let us go back to your question. I think that to survive the Holocaust, the Nazi concentration camps, you had to be lucky. From the moment they started loading you into wagons, you were very lucky to survive, a sheer coincidence. You became a number and from the moment you became a number, you were no longer human. It was all a Kafkaesque possibility of survival.


ORIS: Was this possibility of survival based on the fact that in the whole system there were exceptions, that someone who was there who could help?


Lustig: The exception proves the rule. I struggled as best as I could. I was young, I was ten or eleven, but I was always ambitious and showing off. I spoke German well because we spoke German at home and by the end, during those last couple of months, I became a messenger. It is a wonder that I stayed alive, not only in Auschwitz. None of us who survived had the same experience; I never took things to my heart, it was not a trauma for me. I slept calmly. When I was given human flesh, I ate it. I only cannot eat chicken anymore because it reminds me of that experience.


ORIS: How did you know that you were eating human flesh?


Lustig: The Russians told us. Russian prisoners baked it. We would wash faeces to take out a bean which was not digested. We had no emotions towards anything human any more. When you have so many lice on you, nothing remains; it is only important to stay alive, but you do not even know why. It is an instinct. My library mostly contains stories about people who have survived the Holocaust; every person describes it in their own way and for each one the Holocaust has a different meaning. I am sure that if these six million people became alive, they would each have a different story. When people ask me about the Holocaust, I do not like to philosophize too much; I was lucky; I was in the right place at the right time, I did not turn left, but right. There were many factors; my mother said that I was 16 when I was 10. I was tall and younger children were liquidated earlier.



ORIS: Incomprehensible evil, which is fascism – can be written and thought about a lot. While reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt offered a definition. She coined the term the banality of evil (Banalität des Bösen), which sparked controversy and was not only greeted with approval. She portrayed Eichmann as a plain clerk, a completely average person.


Lustig: I think that there were many Eichmanns but not all of them had the chance. Eichmann was not a clerk, he was a Nazi. Schindler was a Nazi, an opportunist; he saw that he could make a lot of money. His altruism grew every day, when he realized what he could do with the money, that he could save lives. We are not sure whether Schindler was a good or a bad person. It is very important. His wife was a very good person. She is not shown in the movie, but in the Czech Republic, where there the factory was, they would wait for the arrival of wagons with frozen people and she would personally carry a bowl of warm water. She was noble but I am not so sure about Schindler. Steven is also not sure but we are both sure that such a thing must never happen again. That is what I am fighting for today and the reason I have come back from the States. I wish that never again Europe experiences what is happening today in Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and partly in former Eastern Germany. I have come back so that there would be more people who fight against it and I hope that the festival (Jewish Film Festival, from this year called the Festival of Tolerance) I have organized contributes to the improvement of the situation. Various lectures I give, in Knin among other places, I consider an activity similar to that of Don Quixote; I am actually tilting at windmills and, lately, the wind is very strong, and the windmills are spinning faster and faster and it is very hard because I do not have a spear.


ORIS: We would like to end the interview with your engagement at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb, where you teach at the Department of Production.


Lustig: I taught at the Department of Production: the room can take up to twenty people and there were 60 students. I talked about many things; I mostly wanted to prove that there is a difference between production in the States and in Croatia. I wanted to tell people that you cannot attend four years of the Academy and become a director, because the end products are the movies that we have today. I wanted to say that there can be no script without a dramaturge and I think it is one of the most important parts because a movie is based on a script. If the script is no good, believe me, neither will be the movie. The situation with our movies is very difficult. Let us go back to the beginning – Branko Bauer’s movies had a script, had a soul that movies today do not have. I have the impression that they do not know what they want to say.


ORIS: Do you think that the model of production which is currently used needs to be changed?


Lustig: Most definitely. I am not sure what I would do but I would definitely go back to the model with the Ministry of Culture.