Just because a film is a documentary, it is not without need of a structure, a narrative line to help make clear what is at stake in the story it tells. Consequently, almost every documentarian ponders the same question at the outset of a new project:
“What are you going to use as the narrative turbine of the film?” as Erik Greenberg Anjou puts it.
Anjou, a genial man with a growing filmography of Jewish-themed non-fiction films including “A Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground,” is sitting in Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant, an enormous palace of pastrami in the Times Square area, talking about his most recent film, “Deli Man,” which opens March 6.
“The film needed a hero,” he declares, and then looks happily to his right at Ziggy Gruber, the 45-year-old Houston restauranteur who ably filled that cinematic niche. Anjou smiles and adds, “Ziggy’s journey was always central to me, the conglomeration of his journey as a delicatessen guy, a Jew and a man. You couldn’t have created anyone better [for the film].”
Gruber, who was raised a New York Jew, is a deli man with four generations behind him. He virtually grew up in his grandfather’s deli, The Rialto on Broadway, where he hung out with the deli men of his grandfather’s generation. He is possessed of that delightful mixture of personal warmth and sardonic humor that seems to run in the business.
“I was born into it,” he says proudly. “It’s a warm, friendly environment. You wanted to come to work. Work is fun.”
One of the serendipitous aspects of “Deli Man,” the film, is that Gruber’s unquenchable zest for the restaurant and its denizens becomes an important part of that “narrative turbine.” We watch him schmooze with customers and staff in Kenny and Ziggy’s, his place, see him hang out with his girlfriend, even see his wedding in Hungary.
Throughout the film, which is full of historical material on the development of the deli in America, Ziggy preaches a gospel (you should pardon the expression) of joyous hard work, secure in the belief that, as he says this afternoon in New York, “If you run the business right, you will prosper and do well.”
On the other hand, he admits, “You have to work 90 hours a week.”
He recalls many colleagues saying to him, “‘I don’t want to kill myself like my parents did,’ but it depends on the person. It’s a very physical business.”
Gruber has no doubt that “I will die behind the counter,” adding, “I have no hobbies, I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t working.”
Anjou adds, “His hobby is he goes to other restaurants.”
Ziggy quickly counters, “You’re never done learning. Maybe they’re doing something we aren’t; I’m not God, I don’t know everything.”
Anjou gladly admits that Gruber’s generosity with his time and access to his deli and his staff was an enormous part of the film’s artistic success. The restaurant owner’s personal charm is equaled by that of his staff and his clientele. It helped, of course, that the film crew was a small one, working with compact, lightweight equipment as documentarians usually do these days.
“They were never obtrusive at all,” Gruber says. “We have 75 employees and it’s a very busy place. We don’t have time to stop and stage anything.”
Which suited Anjou just fine. He had been drawn to the idea of a film about the diminishing world of the Jewish deli after reading David Sax’s book “Save the Deli,” and meeting Ziggy while he was in Houston for a screening of his 2010 film portrait of the Klezmatics.
“I’m always looking for interesting Jewish stories,” the filmmaker says. “I knew from Day One that this would be my next project.”
Given the difficulty of “the creative journey and the financial journey” inherent in making a documentary film, he says, “you have to find the thing that will compel you. It took something like 3 ½ years to go from grants applications to the final cut on the Klezmatics film. If you’re going to do this, you might as well enjoy it. You’ve made a secret pact with eternity.”
“Deli Man,” directed and written by Erik Greenberg Anjou, opens Friday, March 6 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema (134 E. Houston St.) and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (1886 Broadway).