PASADENA, Calif. (Mar. 9)
HOLIDAY FEATURE: Showtime’s `Devil’s Arithmetic’ depicts surreal Holocaust story
“Open the door to Elijah, child, and invite him in with an open heart,” 16-year-old Hannah Stern is instructed by her beloved Aunt Eva during the family’s Passover seder.
The girl, who had previously rejected much of her Jewish heritage, is strangely drawn into the hall of her aunt’s apartment and toward the presence of an eerie light.
Transfixed, she follows the light down a hallway, is thrust back in time — to German-occupied Poland in 1942 — and begins a surrealistic journey, one that will forever change her feelings about the past and the present.
This is the time-travel story of “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” a Showtime movie filmed near Vilnius, Lithuania, in a 10-acre concentration camp designed to resemble Auschwitz.
The film, which stars Kirsten Dunst (“Wag the Dog”), Brittany Murphy (“Clueless”), Paul Freeman (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and Louise Fletcher (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), will premier at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 28, just in time to teach an important lesson — the power of the human spirit — during the Passover holiday.
Subsequent showings of the poignant and often-harrowing film, which was produced by the actors Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers, will be at 9 p.m. on March 30. 8 p.m. on April 7, 1:45 p.m. on April 10 and 6:15 p.m. on April 23.
What makes this film distinct from other Holocaust-themed movies, said director Donna Deitch, is that it tells its story from a young person’s point of view.
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” is based on the popular book of the same name by Jane Yolen, who won a National Jewish Book Award for her 1988 tale, which has a “The Wizard of Oz” feel to it.
The story has had such a major impact among schoolchildren around the nation that many of them have written book reports in which they put themselves in Hannah’s shoes.
“When we were shooting the film there were a lot of children on the set. Initially I got a sense that it was completely inappropriate for a young child to be there. Yet, this film was about innocent children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.,” Deitch said.
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” turned out to be “a genuine learning experience for the children involved and the parents never took them off the set, even during the difficult moments,” Deitch said. “When I got to Vilnius, I needed many extras and I wanted to hire a lot of Jewish children from the local community to play the parts. Then at one moment we all realized had they been born at a different time they would have lived, and died, this story.”
The film was a labor of love from the production companies of Dustin Hoffman and Mimi Rogers, their first collaboration.
Rogers, who has a small role in the film as Hannah’s mother, felt that it was a unique way of making the subject matter accessible to young people. Hoffman, 61, who is Jewish, was raised in a secular home, but says his wife, Lisa, of 18 years is more religious and “made me want to be more observant.”
They send their four children, who are having Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, to Hebrew school, he said.
Hoffman said everyone involved agreed to do the film for one single purpose: “The experience of the Holocaust teaches us what can happen because of apathy. This is one of the greatest fears that all of us should have.”
Hoffman said it is mind-numbing for him to consider that millions of people, including 6 million Jews, were killed during the first eight years of his own life. This history is something he wants his own children to know.
Dunst was everyone’s first choice for the role of Hannah. She received a Golden Globe nomination and an MTV Award for “best breakthrough artist” in the movie “Interview With the Vampire.” Dunst, who has just turned 17, is also one of a handful of teen-age actresses with the “star power” to get the project produced by Showtime.
In the film, Dunst (as Hannah) wakes up, surrounded by Rivkah and her mother, Mina, relatives she does not recognize. She is stunned to learn she is in Poland in 1942 and is on her way to a nearby village for the festive wedding of two family friends.
From the outset Hannah knows the future: that the wedding is being invaded by Nazis soldiers, who will torch the synagogue. The celebrants are hauled off to a concentration camp and the infants, sick and old people are immediately murdered. The rest are left to perform hard labor in the most severe conditions imaginable.
While the others around her are praying that everyone in the dank, cold camps will survive, Hannah knows the grim reality of her people’s fate.
The three-week shoot in Lithuania took place just a few miles away from one of the very first sites of Jewish genocide, a series of large pits in the Paneriai Forest where 70,000 Jews were shot to death by German and Lithuanian soldiers.
The camp for the set was built from scratch, and cast and crew were beset by heavy rains, muddy fields, bitter cold temperatures and even snow. These harsh elements add the gray and murky quality of the concentration camp scenes.
Dunst said she joined the film project feeling like a child and then had an awakening.
“I feel like I’ve become a lot older and more mature,” she said. “I learned things about myself and my inner strength while I was on my own and feeling so isolated. I didn’t want to complain or act like a sissy. I felt a responsibility to trudge ahead.”
The other actors and the director had similar life-changing experiences.
“While we were out there doing this, I couldn’t help questioning how one person could have lived through this,” Deitch said. “Then you think of the strength of the human will to survive and how powerful that is that even one person made it through this camp experience.”
“Everybody was shattered by the experience,” Deitch said, noting that her own Jewish roots sparked her desire to expand her knowledge and become “entrenched in the subject matter.” She visited Dachau and Auschwitz and interviewed several dozen Holocaust survivors.
Deitch said “The Devil’s Arithmetic” was the most educational and personal film-making experience of her life.
“Through this concentration camp experience I am telling stories that have never been told in this way,” she said. “I am standing up for the real people involved and keeping their memory alive.”