In Showtime's "Out of the Ashes," a Holocaust survivor steps off a boat at New York Harbor, imperiously hands her battered suitcase to her American niece and embarks on a shoe shopping spree.
The TV movie is the story of Dr. Gisella Perl (Christine Lahti), the Hungarian gynecologist who saved 1,000 women by performing secret abortions in Auschwitz. "She was also a bit of a diva," Lahti said.
The actress ("Chicago Hope," "The Heidi Chronicles") said she was drawn to the film because of its unconventional depiction of a survivor as less than heroic. "Gisella had a very mixed reputation," the tall, imposing Lahti said in the cavernous living room of her Brentwood home on a recent morning. "In videotaped testimonials, some eyewitnesses said she was the bravest person they had ever seen, risking her life every time she performed abortions with her bare hands on the barracks floor. Others said she was elitist, demanding bread as payment for medical services. She even had a 'maid' in the barracks, a patient who made up her cot and sewed holes in her doctor's coat."
"Ashes" also depicts how Perl volunteered, albeit under duress, to assist the notorious Dr. Mengele, for which she was initially barred from practicing medicine in the United States.
As such, it's the latest in a small but growing body of films, including Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone," that presents Holocaust victims not as martyrs but as complex human beings forced to make excruciating, even abhorrent choices in order to survive. The trend has troubled observers such as Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who worries that "viewers don't have enough knowledge and sophistication about the Holocaust to absorb the nuances."
Lahti, however, believes more traditional depictions in high-profile films such as "Schindler's List" have prepared viewers for characters like Perl. "It was ultimately her need to survive that touched me," the actress said. "It was the things she did that weren't so heroic but completely human."
Lahti, who grew up Lutheran, said her Holocaust education began when she met her Jewish husband of 19 years, director Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing"), whose parents fled Berlin just before Kristallnacht. On an early outing, the couple sat through the nine-hour Claude Landzmann documentary, "Shoah." "I was horrified," Lahti said. Later, her refugee father-in-law described enlisting in the U.S. Army and helping to liberate concentration camps.
The actress went on to read books and watch films on the Holocaust, but said she encountered few from a woman's point of view. Which is why she was riveted by a 1980s New York Times article on Perl: "I put it in a drawer, and 15 years later I got the call from Jerry Offsay at Showtime," she said. "I couldn't believe the coincidence."
Lahti, 51, was a logical choice for the role. In addition to directing an Oscar-nominated 1994 short film and a well-received first feature, "My First Mister," starring Leelee Sobieski, she's carved a niche portraying complicated, embattled women. Lahti received an Oscar nomination for playing a scrappy factory worker in 1984's "Swing Shift" and an Emmy as power-hungry Dr. Kate Austin on CBS' "Chicago Hope."
To portray Perl, Lahti studied numerous films and books, including Perl's autobiography, "I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz;" she also interviewed survivors and perused videotaped testimonials at Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
The first day on the set in Vilnius, Lithuania, Lahti turned to director Joseph Sargent and said, "This is much harder than I thought it would be." After, she said, "I had anxiety attacks and insomnia, and I warned Joe that I might need to stop shooting at some point and call my husband."
Sargent told The Journal he was "waiting for Christine to break down but that never happened. Instead, she translated what was going on inside her into an incredibly subtle, powerful performance. That subtlety allowed us to examine the morally complex areas that haven't been explored so much in Holocaust films."
While Perl may have been a diva, Lahti nevertheless admires her. "As much guilt as she had and as much loss as she endured, she was able to contribute so much," she said. "But she did have a sense of privilege, even in hell."
"Out of the Ashes" airs April 13 at 8 p.m. on Showtime. Â