(JTA) — The film producer Daniel Dreifuss has only one surviving photo of a distant relative: his grandfather’s cousin, who fought for Germany in World War I and died in combat two days before the war’s end.
He has a few more photos of his grandfather, who also wore the German uniform in WWI — only to be rounded up by the Nazis two decades later during Kristallnacht and thrown into a concentration camp, as even the Jews who had fought for their country were not safe from its campaign of race extermination.
Dreifuss, who was raised in Brazil after his surviving ancestors fled the war to Uruguay, held up these weathered black-and-white photos to his Zoom camera as he spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from his home in Los Angeles. One shows his grandfather’s cousin in his military uniform, the other shows his grandparents posing together, between the wars.
“Twenty years later, your country, that you just gave your health for and your cousin for and your family for, sends you to a camp,” he said. “It’s a lot of trauma to have to go through in one lifetime.”
These family stories echoed through Dreifuss’ mind when he first read the script for a proposed modern take on “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic 1928 novel about the German army’s hellish experiences during World War I. Nearly a century later, author Erich Maria Remarque’s descriptions of trench warfare and of the utter lack of heroism, valor or patriotism felt by its soldier protagonists resonated with Dreifuss.
“I said, ‘I know these people,’” he recalled. “Not because they are some distant relatives that I’ve heard of, but because I am the grandson of one of those kids who were in the film.”
Dreifuss’ parents met at a Jewish youth group in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. “My father was my mother’s madrich,” he recalled, using the Hebrew word for a youth group counselor. After they were later married, they moved to Israel partially to avoid Brazil’s military dictatorship and became left-wing political activists. They left Israel just before the Yom Kippur War and relocated to Scotland, where Dreifuss was born, before returning to Brazil to raise him.
Dreifuss had his bar mitzvah in the city of Belo Horizonte before later moving to Rio, which has a much larger Jewish community. “My family was never at all religious, but culturally Jewish,” he said, recalling Passover celebrations and gefilte fish recipes. He did not have many Jewish friends growing up, but his Brazilian friends were interested in Judaism and would attend his family’s Jewish events.
This global upbringing is reflected in Dreifuss’ interest in international film. It took a decade for him to mount his remake of “All Quiet,” which was eventually set up with a German production company and released by Netflix this past fall amid another endless military conflict in Europe. No one, he said, wanted to fund a resolutely anti-war film that refused to glorify its combatants, a film that was “never a hero’s journey, not the story of someone who came, you know, beat 1,000 people with their bare hands, triumphs and looks down on top of a hill at the end with some sweeping score.”
But that journey has been validated by the film’s impressive Oscar total, which surprised industry observers. At the nomination ceremony last month, “All Quiet” received nine total nods, the second most of any film this year, including for best picture — which the novel’s original 1930 Hollywood adaptation, directed by Jewish filmmaker Lewis Milestone, won. (This year’s Academy Awards will be held March 12.)
Considering the Nazis had once led a campaign of book burning against the source material and terrorized German movie theaters that showed the original movie adaptation, accusing it of being a “Judenfilm,” Dreifuss sees the new film’s success as a historical victory, too. “I love that my name will be associated with a story that was deemed degenerate by that regime,” he said.
When he was first presented with an early draft of the new “All Quiet” script, in 2013, Dreifuss was coming off of the success of another international historical film he had produced. “No,” a 1980s-set Chilean political drama, starred Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad executive tasked with convincing his country to vote the dictator Augusto Pinochet out of office. The film netted Chile’s first-ever Oscar nomination for international feature film, although Dreifuss himself is not Chilean.
In researching “No,” Dreifuss said, the film’s team had trouble finding Chileans who would admit to having cast their real-life vote in Pinochet’s favor — even though 40% of the population did so. “We couldn’t find one single person who supported him,” he recalled. “At some point, years later, no one wanted to say, ‘I supported it, I voted, I was on that side.’” He saw a parallel to the history of geopolitics in the run-up to WWII, when many Western countries — including his family’s adopted homeland of Brazil — were initially sympathetic to the Nazis.
When Hollywood studios turned down the proposed remake of “All Quiet,” forcing Dreifuss to turn to European financing, he saw an opportunity to mount the first-ever German adaptation of the property, which would allow the film to open up a “historical perspective” on how the aftermath of WWI led to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust.
German filmmaker Edward Berger, who also helmed several episodes of the espionage miniseries “Deutschland 83,” stepped into the director’s chair, and he also has a co-writing credit. German star Daniel Brühl, who has played many historical villains to the Jewish people in films ranging from “7 Days in Entebbe” to “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” took a key supporting role as the lead negotiator for the armistice agreements — the sole figure in the movie trying to find a peaceful resolution for his country. (The historical figure Brühl portrays, Matthias Erzberger, was vilified as a traitor by the German right and assassinated in 1921 by antisemitic nationalist radicals who were precursors to the Nazis.)
Though there are no explicitly Jewish characters in the film, Dreifuss believes it still speaks to the fate that would soon await Europe’s Jews.
“We know what followed in the decade in Germany,” he said. “So we could bring that to the film in subtle ways.”
He pointed to the armistice plotline that foreshadows how the Treaty of Versailles left Germany in a deeply disadvantaged position, creating an opportunity for Hitler’s brand of national populism. There are also scenes in which thoughtless German generals, driven by nationalistic fervor and wounded pride, send entire squadrons to their deaths mere minutes before the armistice is set to take effect. In one sequence, the film’s lead, the soldier Paul (Felix Kammerer), steals a goose from a French farming family of non-combatants and says: “It’s a hatred of the other, of not understanding, of being raised to have an enemy.”
Dreifuss is dipping into a different chapter of world Jewish history with his next project: a Showtime miniseries produced with the co-creators of the Israeli Netflix series “Fauda” that explores CIA operations in the Middle East and is partially set during the Lebanon War in which Israel had a heavy, and oft-criticized, military presence. The series will air this summer.
He has also been pitched a host of WWI and WWII-related projects in the wake of the success of “All Quiet.” But, he joked, “I would love for people to not only think of me as the war guy, or as the dictator guy.”