October 25, 2001
A Tale of Two Fighters
"Maybe heroes should be watched from a distance. They're important in time of war, but not so comfortable in time of peace," muses Arnost Lustig toward the end of the documentary "Fighter."
Lustig is talking about Jan Wiener, the film's title character and Lustig's traveling companion in a journey back in time and space to the stations of the Holocaust, which both survived.
The two old men, both full of life and memories, make for an odd couple and a riveting film, which opens Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall for a one-week run.
Wiener, who was 77-years-old when the film was made in the summer of 1998, is strikingly handsome, with snowy hair and a martial moustache, still works out regularly as a boxer. He is a man of action, straightforward, propelled by enduring loves and hates.
Lustig, then 72, is balding and paunchy, a successful author, academic and bon vivant, who looks for underlying motivations and tries to bend Wiener's recollections to the literary subtleties of a planned biography.
A New Yorker critic described the two men as "Shakespearean personalities" and as they revisit the sites of Wiener's wartime odyssey through Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia and Italy, the protagonists laugh, drink gallons of beer, quarrel, separate in anger and reunite.
Pick any emotion, and "Fighter" has it, often stretched to the limit of human belief and endurance.
At the railroad station in Trieste, Wiener recounts how he clung to the undercarriage of a train for 18 hours, inches above the wheels and inches below a toilet chute spewing excrement.
The men wander through the remnants of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto and concentration camp, where Wiener's mother was beaten to death and Lustig survived, while the German propaganda film, "The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews," plays in ironic counterpoint.
There is high drama, when Wiener guides Lustig to the office of a Czech bureaucrat, who humiliated him in 1939 and whom he vowed to kill after the war.
There is humor, as when Lustig recalls the earnest decision of a group of Czech-Jewish teenagers to lose their virginity to the same prostitute before being deported.
And there are incidents even the most fertile imagination could scarcely conceive. Arrived at Auschwitz, and with nothing to do the first three days, Lustig and his companions use a balled-up rag for a soccer game, with one side of the field delineated by a high voltage fence.
Asked by one inmate what they thought they were doing, one boy replied, "We're playing soccer while we're waiting to die."
Wiener eventually made his way to the British lines in Italy and became a bombardier in the Czech wing of the Royal Air Force. He returned to Prague and after the Communists took power, was thrown into a labor camp for five years as a "British spy."
The difference between the man of action and the man of thought is illustrated in one exchange. While Wiener burns with undying hatred of the Nazis, Lustig reflects, "What would I have done if I had been born a German boy? How many people would I have killed? It makes me happy that I was born a Jew."
In the early 1950s, Wiener and Lustig came to the United States and have since divided their time teaching in their adopted and native lands.
Amir Bar-Lev, the 29-year old director and co-producer of "Fighter" is a Berkeley-born son of Israelis who came to America in the early 1950s. He was studying at the Prague Film Academy in 1993, when he met Wiener, who was teaching in an exchange program.
Fascinated by the older man's tales of combat, escape and amorous conquests, he resolved to tell the survivor's story for his first major film project.
Lustig, an old friend and occasional enemy of Wiener, eagerly joined the trip, and in the summer of 1998 the two "stars" and a five-man crew crammed themselves and their equipment into a minivan and took off.
After their return, Bar-Lev had the mammoth job of editing the 100 hours of film into a 90-minute documentary. Financially, the filmmakers, with a budget of less than $200,000, teetered on a constant tightrope.
"We went without salaries, and I moved back into my parents' home to save money, and used their basement for a cutting room," Bar-Lev recalls.
"Fighter" has earned a fistful of award at European and American film festivals, and enthusiastic reviews from the New York Times to Variety.
The Los Angeles screening marks the beginning of the film's commercial run. It is set for one week, but will be extended if attendance warrants it.
"Fighter" opens Fri., Oct. 26 at the Laemmle Music Hall 9036 Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills.