At 85, Artur Brauner has reached an age when most folks have already spent at least two decades in retirement, but the tireless Berlin-based film producer doesn’t seem to understand the German word “Ruhestand” even though he speaks six languages.
After dictating a batch of letters to his secretary well into a warm Berlin evening, Brauner finishes his long day with a quick arm-wrestling match. Satisfied his strength isn’t letting up, Brauner then explains why he cannot imagine retiring even after producing and writing some 400 films.
“I feel like I’m still 50,” says the man who overcame extraordinary odds to become a successful businessman and one of Germany’s leading Jewish voices.
“I don’t need weekends off or vacations. The only thing I need is good screenplays and good banks. The creative work is great fun even though the business has become less pleasant. There are stories that still have to be told.”
Brauner, who came to Germany after WWII to make a film about the Holocaust, has been telling stories in Germany for nearly 60 years.
Brauner’s recent birthday was a milestone that leading German newspapers and political leaders marked with lengthy tributes. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit recently said Berlin would be a poorer city without Brauner.
The filmmaker delivered a great variety of pulpy films in the 1950s and 60s that thrived at the B.O. while at the same time making harrowing films about the Holocaust that often flopped at home but won acclaim abroad.
An indefatigable man who lost 49 relatives in Nazi concentration camps, Brauner says he survived by relying on courage he learned watching American westerns as a boy in his native Poland.
“I saw every western ever made as a child and they helped me grow up without fear,” said Brauner, who added he once even used a trick he saw in a Gary Cooper film to escape from a real life German soldier. “I don’t know what fear is.”
He nevertheless knows a lot about disappointment.
Brauner won a Golden Globe as well as best foreign film citations from New York and Boston film critics for his 1990 film “Europa Europa”, based on a true story of a Jewish boy who conceals his identity and joins the German army and Hitler Youth to survive.
The film was among the top grossing German films in the United States and was considered as a top contender for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film but was curiously not submitted by Germany as its official entry.
“I was robbed,” Brauner said.
He also tried for more than 10 years to make a film about German industrialist Oskar Schindler but attempts to obtain film board funding were repeatedly rebuffed.
Steven Spielberg later made the film “Schindler’s List.”
Brauner said he only came to Germany in 1946 from his native town of Lodz in Poland because he wanted to make one film about the Holocaust. He didn’t plan to stay long in Germany.
His 1948 film “Morituri” about a group of concentration camp inmates who escape and survive the Holocaust by hiding in the Polish forests included elements of his own experiences.
The reception in Germany was hostile. “Old Nazis stormed the cinemas, smashed windows and disrupted the screenings,” Brauner said. “The cinema operators cancelled it and I had a lot of debts. I didn’t want to leave Germany with debts. So I stayed.”
He turned to producing soft films with happy endings such as “Don’t Play with Love” (1949) “Star from Rio” (1955) and “Love” (1956) that better captured the mood of the nation eager to put its nightmarish past behind it and helped Brauner earn a small fortune with his CCC Film (“Central Cinema Company”) built up in a converted war-time munitions plant in West Berlin.
Brauner, a dapper dresser with a signature thin mustache kept neatly trimmed just above his lip, returned to making films about the Third Reich victims in the 1980s.
Aside from “Europa Europa”, he also produced “The Good Soldier Schweik” (1963), “The White Rose” (1982), “From Hell to Hell” (1996) and “Babij Jar” (2003), a film about a 1941 Nazi massacre near Kiev that fewer than 10,000 Germans paid to see when it opened earlier this year.
Undeterred, Brauner is now working on another Holocaust film with the working title “Der letzte Zug” (The Final Stage) about 120 Berlin Jews deported to Auschwitz and pressed into a cattle car for a hellish four-day journey without food, water or any sanitary facilities.
“I’m definitely going to make this film. These are the films that bring the victims back to life again. They’ll still be here after I’m gone, for another 100 or 200 years. They’re the most important work I’ve done.”