Berlinale 2024 | Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry connect with their Jewish heritage in ‘Treasure’

The Berlin Film Festival has been graced with the world premiere of “Treasure,” a poignant comedy-drama that marks German director Julia von Heinz’s first foray into English-language cinema. Starring Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham, the film delves into themes of familial bonds, heritage, and the long shadows cast by history.

In “Treasure,” audiences are taken on a stirring road trip through post-communist Poland, where the characters seek to uncover and come to terms with their ancestral past. Fry steps into the role of Edek, a Holocaust survivor, with Dunham playing his daughter Ruth, a New York journalist. As the duo travels, Edek is faced with confronting harrowing memories that have lain dormant for many years, sharing with his daughter stories once stifled by the pain they evoked.

The narrative is inspired by Lily Brett’s novel “Too Many Men,” and both Fry and Dunham connected personally with the material, tapping into their own Jewish heritage to deliver powerful, authentic performances. Fry even learned Polish to bring greater authenticity to his character.

Dunham humorously recounted sending her mother a photo from her initial script read-through with Fry, to which her mother quipped, “I think we now know who your real father is.” Despite the light-hearted comment, the film tackles the weighty subject matter of intergenerational trauma. Dunham’s connection to the story runs deep, her family having origins in Poland near the filming locations, and her own great-grandmother having lost nine siblings at the onset of the Holocaust in 1941.

Director von Heinz taps into the nuanced dynamic within families where trauma is present but remains unspoken. She explores how silence, often intended as a shield, can instead become a persistent presence felt through generations until someone is willing to address it directly.

Fry provided further insight into the psyche of a survivor like Edek, who would naturally be hesitant to expose his daughter to the “absolute depths of depravity” encountered in his experiences, especially as she grows up in the relative peace and optimism of America.

The significance of “Treasure” is accentuated by its premiere during a time of heightened antisemitism and growing support for far-right ideologies, particularly in Germany. Events around the world, such as the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel in October, intensified the urgency for von Heinz and her team to complete the film and present it at the Berlinale.

Beyond its focus on Jewish heritage, Dunham emphasized the film’s broader implications, addressing the rise of various forms of bigotry and xenophobia. She aspires for the film to foster a discussion about the generational ramifications when communities face isolation, violence, or intense scrutiny.

Challenges in production included the filming of scenes set in Auschwitz. With filming inside the actual camp prohibited, von Heinz secured special permission to recreate barracks near the site, a move she felt necessary to enhance Fry’s portrayal of Edek. The resulting scenes were potent, with von Heinz stating that the location exudes an undefinable feeling that permeates the film.

The premier at the Berlinale serves not only as an entry point into a specific historical narrative but also as a reminder of the contemporary relevance of these stories. With “Treasure,” Dunham, Fry, and von Heinz have crafted a cinematic experience that is both a reflection on personal and collective histories and a call to acknowledge the enduring impact of the past on the present and future.

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