"My mother was always an optimist. It didn't save her." These words are Miriam Lichterman's, one of the two witnesses in Jon Bang Carlsen's new film, "Purity Beats Everything". Lichterman was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz. After the war, she moved to South Africa, far from the Europe that had made a wreckage of her life. But, even having escaped European concepts of purity, Lichterman soon realised she had ended up in another political hot spot with anything but trouble-free relationships between races, religions and cultures.
"... perhaps the most beautiful function of art is its ability to give shape to even the most painful experiences, so you can stand looking into a darkness that is otherwise too sinister for humans to contemplate."
"The Jews had been through incredible evil as the result of the Nazis' Northern European variant of a perverted notion of purity," Bang Carlsen says. "It seems somehow tragicomic that, when they finally succeeded in escaping the smell of cremated family members and making it to South Africa, they are met first by protesters on the pier and, once they are admitted into the country, they become part of a white upper class founded on some of the same ideologies behind the persecution of their own people in Europe."
That's not a popular observation among the 75,000 Jews living in South Africa today, Bang Carlsen says. In the film, Lichterman, in a controlled but very firm manner, admonishes him for suggesting that it must have been problematic for her to meet some of the same Germanic types in South Africa she had escaped from in Europe. "You must never, ever compare racial segregation in South Africa with the Holocaust,"she tells him. No matter how bad the situation was for black South Africans, South Africa never had a plan to systematically eradicate an entire race.
That's a crucial point for Lichterman. In the film, her reaction becomes a jumping-off point for Bang Carlsen to hear his other main character, Pinchas Gutter. Gutter's experience tells him to remain on guard. What happened in Germany in the 1930's can happen again, anywhere and at any time. The subtext being that the Nazis were not an especially primitive race of human animals. Their leaders tended to be well-educated people. Music lovers.
PAIN TRANSFORMED INTO ART
Bang Carlsen's fascination with South Africa goes back to 1994, when he visited the country for a film festival. He was captivated by the sweeping landscapes and the fact that the Africaan culture was so close to the culture he grew up with in Denmark. He felt at home, even though he was in a foreign context. He returned in 1997 and settled in Cape Town, where he started working on what would eventually become a trilogy of films about religion. "Addicted to Solitude" (1999), "Portrait of God" (2001) and "Blinded Angels" (2005) are three very different works exploring the intersection between documentary, personal essay and fiction.
The idea for his new film grew out of an episode he witnessed in a coffee shop in Sea Point, a former affluent neighbourhood in Cape Town that is home to many Jews. As he was sitting there nursing a cup of coffee, a tiny, ancient Jewish woman was rolled in in a wheelchair by a black maid, a big, strong Xhosa woman. The image lingered in his mind and out of it emerged the outlines of a film story.
"I imagined the old Jewish woman sitting in isolation in her big, old apartment with all her memories. Of course, she would have survived the camps in World War II and like so many other Jews had come to South Africa in 1947-48, that is, around the time the apartheid regime was instituted. Now, her children would have left the country and were probably working in London or New York, while fate had brought to her a black aide, who might even be living in the same apartment, because it was too dangerous for her to go home to her township at night. I wanted to tell their story. I started looking for a suitable couple but didn't initially find anyone whose mutual relationship was strong enough to carry a film."
Instead, Bang Carlsen met Miriam Lichterman and Pinchas Gutter, the two main characters in "Purity Beats Everything". Having filmed their stories and reflections on living as Holocaust survivors in South Africa, he returned to Denmark and began to document his own attempt to relate to their horrendous experiences in terms of his own life and his own history. The film geographically alternates between South African reality and Danish village idyll, while temporally switching from World War II to the present day. This is at once the film's artistic stratagem and its point: the past always exists in the present, nothing ever ends, everything is connected.
"Spending time with Miriam Lichterman, it struck me how, in a sense, she had transformed her experiences into art, simply to be able to talk about them," Bang Carlsen says. "I recognised a little bit of that in myself. In 1995, I had just finished a feature, "Carmen and Babyface", which dealt with some big wounds in my own life, some of those infernal, salty wounds that never heal and we all carry around with us. At first, I couldn't approach the material without breaking into tears, but I finally managed to give it artistic shape. Then when I heard Miriam tell her story, I realised that perhaps the most beautiful function of art is its ability to give shape to even the most painful experiences, so you can stand looking into a darkness that is otherwise too sinister for humans to contemplate. Miriam had simply turned her experiences into a work of art, allowing her to recount the same experiences over and over again in almost exactly the same words and phrases."
"Purity beats everything". Photo: Jon Bang Carlsen
CONFRONTING YOUR OWN HIDEOUS PROFILE
Jon Bang Carlsen was born in 1950 and grew up in peaceful Denmark – as he puts it, an astoundingly short distance from places in Germany where Nazi atrocities had taken place just a few years before. Why didn't anyone talk about this when I was growing up, he asks in the film. Why this silence about something that was so near and took up so much room?
"When I was growing up, my mother introduced me to Beethoven and Bach and all the other things belonging to her culture, the whole notion of ultimate beauty and romance – what was, in a way, simply the positive side of the perversion that created Auschwitz," Bang Carlsen says. "Later, in the 1960s, when most of my generation was absorbed by the Beatles and Anglo-Saxon culture, it struck me as odd how everyone could turn their backs on Central-European culture so completely, perhaps because my temperament and disposition was mainly oriented in the other direction. I have always had a hard time with Danish humour, the little irreverences that take the wind out of any loftiness. I have at times found Danes lacking a willingness to strive upwards where the air is a bit chillier and the view a bit bigger. On the other hand, I certainly see that a leavening joke can be a wonderful thing, because it prevents people from becoming extremists. But, especially when I was young, I experienced a big cultural vacuum southward, toward Germany, and considered it a serious problem that we, as a nation, never confronted our own mental connection to the perversion that happened in Germany back then. After all, even today, a tinge of it remains in how we relate to the challenges of globalisation and the multiracial society. I think it's important that a nation is able to stare down its own fear and confront its own hideous profile."
Is the film a generational showdown?
"No, it's more of a showdown with my country and the denial that marked the 1950s," Bang Carlsen Purity Beats Everything Photo: Jon Bang Carlsen says. "I always felt somehow culturally co-responsible for what had happened. And I have had a need to ask of my own culture whether we were afraid to look our German neighbour in the eye back then for fear of seeing our own face. This is something that has been gnawing at me, and for a long time I have known that I would make a film about it someday. But obviously, the Holocaust is a brutal subject to approach and, of course, it intimidated me at first."
Says you who is known for films dealing with big existential questions, including a portrait of God!
"True. Then again, God never had a number tattooed on his arm, did He?"