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BERLINALE 2020 Berlinale Special

Patrick Sobelman and Hugo Sobelman • Directors of Golda Maria

“This story is bigger than our family”


- BERLINALE 2020: We spoke to Patrick and Hugo Sobelman about their Golda Maria, which brings together three generations

Patrick Sobelman and Hugo Sobelman  • Directors of Golda Maria

In 1994, Patrick Sobelman decided to film his grandmother – a survivor of Birkenau born in Poland, raised in Germany and later forced to flee. With the help of his son, Hugo Sobelman, he finally shows her story in Golda Maria [+see also:
film review
interview: Patrick Sobelman and Hugo S…
film profile
, as recounted by the spirited lady herself. It is screening in the Berlinale Special section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: Your film made me think about my own relationship with my grandparents. We don’t really listen to them, do we? Except that you actually did.
Patrick Sobelman:
Just imagine – you are 35 years old, you come back from Auschwitz, and you’ve lost a child. You come back from hell, so how do you start a new life? How does it feel? That was the question at the start of this project. The other reason was that when I first started, Hugo was six years old, his brother was four, and she was 84. I didn’t know how much time we had left. I loved my grandmother – the first time I got drunk was with her. But she stayed silent for years, as many survivors did. They just wouldn’t talk! We, as her family, only knew the History with a capital “H”.

The decision to have her sitting down, recounting her life, with any additional material kept to the absolute minimum – where did it come from?
I am not a film director, and to me, it was a testimony. So I put my camera on the tripod and we were just talking. I had no idea we would make a film out of it one day!

Hugo Sobelman: What’s incredible is that the couple of shots he did outside of this basic interview, of her flipping through the family photo book and a close-up of her face, they really gave us something else. They gave a certain rhythm to the movie, at least once we’d decided it would become one.

PS: That last close-up was a complete coincidence. My battery was running out, I was losing light, and she was talking about some very important matters. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to record it. I just grabbed the camera and got closer to buy some time [laughs].

It’s interesting to hear you say you are not a filmmaker, because many are obsessed with keeping their distance. You don’t, often loudly reacting to what she is saying.
It’s a dialogue between a grandmother and her grandson. I didn’t know anything about the things she mentioned; I didn’t prepare. My only plan was to follow her life chronologically, from Poland to Germany and France. During the editing, Hugo was saying we needed to keep these scenes in, as you really get to witness our intimate conversation.

HS: To me, that’s what makes this movie so special. He discovers it all as she speaks; it’s very spontaneous. And some things he just doesn’t understand, like when she says she didn’t want to speak Yiddish. She wanted to speak German! So, basically, the audience gets to react the same way he did back then.

You mentioned that her generation didn’t want to talk about the war. But what’s also surprising is her decision to talk about sex, or similarly intimate topics.
I was surprised by that, too; she was not the kind of woman who would talk about similar matters easily. I loved it when, at one point, she said: “Femininity came to my rescue” [when recounting the story of a man requesting sexual favours for a visa].

HS: To her, it was a funny story. To us, it was scary. It’s almost as if she was trying to make you laugh.

PS: It was the same with her comments about Yiddish. She loved Germany, and she loved being in Berlin in the 1920s. So to her, Yiddish was not joli. It may sound strange, but as far as we know, everyone understands the heart of what she is saying. I still think there is something hidden, some mystery intact – like the details of her situation when she was pregnant.

She tells some really tragic stories, but then takes one look at an old photo and says: “I was almost beautiful once.” Were you surprised by her humour?
Or when she says: “I was very popular, but didn’t make anything out of it.” It’s the kind of thing she would say; that’s the way I remember her. There was this authenticity about her, as she always saw things exactly as they were. She didn’t sugar-coat anything.

When you talk to someone that close, someone you’ve known your entire life, how hard must it be to find out all of these things?
It was tough at the beginning. I remember her, her hands and her eyes. I grew up around this couch she was sitting on. During the first month of the editing, I would wake up every morning, facing my grandmother’s darkest memories… I needed to adapt. It felt like I “lived” with her for a year. But then it wasn’t just about us any more. This story is bigger than our family.

PS: I started recording her in 1994. After that, I felt like I had done my job – I’d recorded her for future generations. I made VHS copies, and that was it. She died in 2010, but it took another eight years for my wife to finally go: “It’s crazy that you’re not editing it.” She was right. It would have been a different film back then, 25 years ago, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it with Hugo. But I really think she was relieved to talk about all this. It was time, and she was ready.

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