LOS ANGELES, Oct. 22 (JTA) — “Maybe heroes should be watched from a distance. They’re important in time of war, but not so comfortable in time of peace,” Arnost Lustig muses toward the end of the documentary “Fighter.”
Lustig is talking about Jan Wiener, the film’s title character and his 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.
Wiener, 78 when the film was made in the summer of 1998, is strikingly handsome, with snowy hair and a martial moustache, who 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.
One critic described the two men as “Shakespearean personalities.” 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, Italy, 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 Ghetto, where Wiener’s mother was beaten to death and Lustig survived, while the Nazi propaganda film, “The Fuhrer 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: In one scene, Lustig recalls the earnest decision of a group of Czech Jewish teen-agers to lose their virginity to the same prostitute before being deported.
And there are incidents even the most fertile imagination could scarcely conceive of.
Lustig recalled that after he arrived at Auschwitz during the war, he 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 Italy and became a bombardier in the Czech wing of Britain’s 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.”
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 since have divided their time teaching in their adopted and native lands.
Amir Bar-Lev, the 29-year old director and co-producer of “Fighter,” is the 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 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 100 hours of film into a 90-minute documentary. With a budget of less than $200,000, the filmmakers teetered financially 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 awards at European and American film festivals, and enthusiastic reviews from The New York Times to Variety.
“Fighter” is currently screening at film festivals and in theaters in the United States. For dates and locations, access www.fighterfilm.com/Screenings.html.