Synopsis and review of Fighter (required event for Hist 133D at UCSB, 22 Oct. 2001)
http://www.fighterfilm.com/Reviews.html#3, and /Synopsis.htm
We first meet Jan Wiener in Lenox, Massachusetts, where the 77-year old is pummeling a boxing bag in his garage. "Boxing taught me to take a blow and get up" he growls, between punches. "Its very similar to life- you have to keep to rules that are strict."
On a spring day Jan meets his friend Arnost Lustig in Washington DC, to plan the upcoming trip over a large map of Europe. It is our first opportunity to observe the pair in action. Their banter is peppered with affectionate teasing. Jan is the straight man, Arnost the card. Jan tries to talk about history, Arnost wants tales of romantic adventure. It is a rapport which foreshadows some of the troubles to come. When Arnost gives Jan a hearty backslap and exclaims "I cannot wait to go with this man," Jan deadpans, "I can wait."
Fighter then follows Jan and Arnost as they journey to the old country. Jan revisits the office of the Czech collaborator who granted him an exit visa but told him not to expect to live long enough to wear out more than one pair of shoes. From that moment on, Jan was determined to survive and return to Prague to get revenge on this man for humiliating him. As a decorated war hero he returned to the same office, found the collaborator, put a gun to his head, and reminded him of his treatment of Jews six years earlier.
While asking Jan about this episode Arnost alludes to the communist regime- and quite unexpectedly, Jan confronts Arnost: "How can you say that when you were part of the same goddam murderous organization?" Until this point Arnost was only an interlocutor helping shed light on Jan's life, now suddenly and rather unwillingly, his own life is exposed to critique and analysis.
In the coming days, Jan and Arnost's conflict flares up repeatedly: in the police station where Jan was accused of being a British spy for his RAF service during the war, and in the decrepit and abandoned communist labor camp where he was sent for five years of hard labor.
The two men find common ground in Terezin, the ghetto and adjoining concentration camp where Arnost spent his formative years, and where Jan's mother was murdered by the Nazis. Fighter includes excepts from The Fuhrer Gives A City To The Jews, a propaganda film used by Hitler to fool the Swiss Red Cross into ignoring rumors of Nazi atrocities.
Next the two friends hit the road south, retracing the steps of Jan's escape. Their first stop is Slovenia, where Jan returns for the first time to the house where his father committed suicide in 1941. Next they travel to Trieste, where Jan stowed under a locomotive and spent 18 hours under the toilet hole, clutching an excrement-slicked steel plate just over the train's wheels. Here, also, Arnost speaks about his own father's fate. Czech novels and films are famous for their seamless transition between tragedy and humor. We get a taste of this when Arnost tells us how his jocular father used to howl with laughter listening to Hitler's speeches on the radio. "The sad end of this story," says Arnost with a complex smile, "is that Hitler was definitely laughing longer than my father. Because I don't think that he laughed very much in the gas chambers."
As the two progress along Jan's escape route, the rift between them begins to reopen. Arnost seeks to reinterpret Jan's stories, and Jan bristles at what he considers a desecration of his most sacred memories. By the time they arrive in Cosenza, Italy, Jan is gripping so tightly to his past that the present can only disappoint him. The world that he remembers from his youth is gone. One after another the people whom he visits tell him that they don't remember him. The husband of a former girlfriend humiliates him, the POW camp from which Jan escaped is overrun with weeds. Dejected, Jan lashes out at Arnost.
The film reaches its dramatic peak in a climactic fight during which the two men vow never to speak with one another again. Here is the torrent of anger which Jan says kept him alive through the war, now turned on his friend and the documentary crew. As Jan pulls off his microphone it is clear that the filming is over. But this is not enough to diminish Arnost's admiration for Jan, and as the two pack their bags and return to the United States, Arnost delivers an emotional monologue on Jan, heroism, their friendship, and the sacrifice one makes by becoming a fighter. We leave Jan Wiener back in his yard in Lenox, only now rather than boxing, his wife soothingly tries to teach him Tai Chi.
Hollywood Reporter, August 1, 2000
Most popular with the audiences, if not the judges, despite a special mention, was the debut feature-length documentary of Los Angeles based director Amir Bar-Lev. "Fighter" tells the story of two elderly Czech Jewish émigrés, Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig. Both men left Czechoslovakia, following the 1968 Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, for America, where they met and became friends.
The film follows the pair as they retrace the war-time escape route from Prague taken by Wiener, who fled the German occupation to join the Czech forces in Britain where, after many incredible experiences, including a spell in an Italian prison, he flew bombers for the Royal Air Force.
Lustig's war was different. He and his family were sent to concentration camps, where many died. Wiener's family also suffered: His father and German stepmother committed suicide in Yugoslavia on the day of the Nazi invasion, and his natural mother was murdered in the Theriesenstadt concentration camp.
Bar-Lev's original idea to shoot a straightforward documentary following the feisty Wiener's path from Prague got diverted by the increasingly dramatic tension between the two old friends, who manage to agree on virtually nothing about their experiences.
Wiener criticizes Lustig for having been a member of the Communist Party; Lustig, the celebrated Czech writer, rankles at Wieners literal take on events, imagining the reasons why various different people helped or did not hinder Wieners escape. Wiener, an abrasive 80 year-old, can't stand what he considers a load of poppycock.
The day after "Fighter’s" final screening at Karlovy Vary, Jan Wiener had two serious strokes. "The good news," says Bar-Lev, "Is that, true to form, Jan is making what the doctors there are calling a ‘miraculous recovery.’ The night of his strokes, his left side was completely paralyzed. By a week later, he was taking short walks out of his bed, joking and planning on being at work in the fall.
"Arnost Lustig was in town but held off on visiting because Jan said that seeing Arnost would finish him off completely. Arnost instead sent two women with flowers and a letter that, to the best of our recollection, began: ‘Honza, [a diminutive for Jan] Honzichku! Don't do this to me. You're scaring me! If you're gone, who will I be able to anger so easily?'
"He finished the letter: 'I kiss your ass, because that is the only part of your body I am worthy of kissing.' Jan promptly asked that Arnost be allowed to visit."
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