AUSTRALIAN filmmaker Tony Krawitz was catapulted into the international limelight in 2005 when his short film Jewboy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Now his first feature film, Dead Europe, adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’s controversial novel, is set to make him a household name, especially in Jewish homes.
Jewboy was set in Sydney’s ultra-Orthodox community and was based on Krawitz’s own experiences driving taxis when he was a university student.
While Dead Europe has its dark heart and central mystery in the persecution of Jews over the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, it is set around a gay, non-Jewish, Australian-born photographer of Greek heritage named Isaac (Ewen Leslie from Jewboy), who travels to Europe to take back his father’s ashes.
“As a Jew I’m really fascinated by my culture,” says Krawitz, who lives in Sydney. “From the amazing stories and experiences of the Jewish people over the ages and in contemporary culture, there’s a rich well to draw upon.
“I found Dead Europe interesting because it was about Jews, and in a sense the Holocaust, about hatred and especially anti-Semitism. It was written in a way that I hadn’t come across before.”
Tsiolkas’s novels are multi-layered and powerful, and like The Slap, which was made into a hit TV mini-series by the ABC, Dead Europe viscerally probes beneath the surface of all its characters.
It was this quality in the storytelling that excited Krawitz, and made him want to turn Dead Europe into a film.
“It reminded me a lot of Greek tragedy, or even biblical stories such as Job, or ‘I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’ Those really old, ancient ideas and beliefs really inspired me to make the book into a film,” he says.
“What really underpins the story is a powerful scream for human rights. Christos began writing Dead Europe when the wars in the former Yugoslavia broke out. He was shocked that this kind of inhumanity could be happening again on European soil. It reminded people again of World War II. But at the end of the day what really moved me is that Dead Europe is a gripping read.”
As adapted by Krawitz and his collaborators – Oscar-winning producer Emile Sherman and actress turned writer Louise Fox – the film is different in many ways from Tsiolkas’s novel, which combines two narratives: a fairytale that takes place in a Greek village before and after World War II, and a second story which takes place in the present.
In Krawitz’s film, these two stories are blended, and Isaac’s hallucinogenic descent into the horrors of the past makes for riveting cinema.
Krawitz was born in South Africa and migrated with his family to Australia in 1987, aged 19. With memories embedded in his consciousness of his maternal German-Jewish grandparents, who were forced to flee Berlin in 1935, Krawitz was impressed with Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe because of the way it strips bare the prejudices that, even today, lie like a dark secret under the surface of European culture.
“I found it really brave that with Dead Europe Christos interrogated his own preconceived notions of Jews and inherited hatreds,” he says.
“In South Africa, Jews were classified as white people. I grew up under a really unjust system that had paternalistic notions about what black people were like. It was something I had to unpack for myself, and that resonated for me in the book as well.”
Krawitz is particularly proud that three Jews worked together in bringing Dead Europe to the screen.
“Emile Sherman, the producer (The King’s Speech, Disgrace), writer Louise Fox and I are all Jews, and I think we were drawn to Dead Europe for similar reasons,” he says.
“It is a powerful story about someone we can identify with, who seems like a really good person, who becomes infected with his own prejudices.
“Isaac is having a psychological breakdown, and the film is told through his point of view. But the Europe we see on the screen is the Europe he experiences.
“When I read the book I loved it. I found out that the option rights were available, and it was only about a month later that I got a call from Sherman, completely out of the blue.
“‘Have you read the book?’ he asked me. I didn’t know him very well then. ‘That’s really weird,’ I told him. ‘I’ve been trying to get the rights myself.’ So we got together,” Krawitz says.
“Louise was one of the founding members of Barrie Kosky’s Gilgul Theatre and a good friend who I’ve known for 15 years. She comes from a theatrical tradition and was involved as an actor in contemporary Yiddish theatre in Australia in the ’90s.
“Since then she’s become a full-time writer, and is not only one of the smartest people I know, but interested in what it means to be Jewish in a historical sense, and as an Australian Jew in the 21st century.”
Krawitz has notched up an impressive CV since his days studying film at the University of Technology in Sydney, and the Australian Film Television and Radio School.
Since Jewboy he has directed many episodes for television dramas and mini-series, and his feature-length documentary The Tall Man (2011) won a swathe of awards, including an AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild award) for best documentary script.
On a personal level, his greatest achievement has been his long-time friendship and marriage to fellow Australian director Cate Shortland (Somersault, 2004), whose latest film Lore – about five destitute German children who travel about 900 kilometres to their grandmother’s house in Hamburg after the defeat of Germany in World War II – has been selected as the Australian entry for the best foreign language Oscar at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Krawitz met Shortland 20 years ago and the couple have two adopted South African children, aged 18 and four.
“The funny thing is that when we met at a friend’s party, and we were both in our early 20s, we ended up bonding over a discussion about history and fascism,” says Krawitz.
“It’s just curious, a weird twist of fate, that these two films (Dead Europe and Lore) got funded at a very similar time, which made for a crazy time last year trying to juggle two films and two children.”
Dead Europe opens in cinemas on November 15.