Film ‘nine lives’ captures indomitable spirit of Arnošt Lustig

Doc film commemorates humor and humanity of Czech writer who lived through and documented history’s darkest days

Arnošt Lustig speaking in 'Arnošt Lustig – Nine Lives' foto: © Diamant Film PrahaČeská pozice

Arnošt Lustig speaking in 'Arnošt Lustig – Nine Lives'

Approaching the anniversary of Czech-Jewish writer Arnošt Lustig’s death on Feb. 26, 2011 at age 84, a new documentary film celebrating his life and work is being released, titled Arnošt Lustig - devět životů (Arnošt Lustig – Nine Lives). Made by the father-daughter team of Ivo Pavelek and Kristina Pavelková, the film stars the vibrant writer himself as he talks about his family, childhood, his experiences in the concentration camps and his rise as a journalist and internationally celebrated novelist.

The film is available online as part of the Doc Alliance project, which is the result of six major European documentary film festivals teaming up and putting films online. The extensive collection of films on the site can be streamed, downloaded as files or in DVD quality for very reasonable prices. And from Feb. 20 to 26 the Lustig documentary (in Czech, with no subtitles as of yet) can be streamed for free.

Lustig was a writer strongly associated with Prague and the Nazi concentration camps he was held in, but the film begins with images from the Prague neighborhood where he passed an “idyllic” childhood – Libeň. The area already has strong literary connections for being associated with Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal.

Born in 1926, Lustig reminisces over his humble beginnings. One of the other main voices in the documentary is his sister Hana Hnátová, also a concentration camp survivor, who brings back the distant world of their childhood. Writer and journalist Zdeněk Mahler is another figure from Lustig’s youth interviewed in the film, attesting to his friend and then opponent’s football prowess as well as his overflowing vitality and optimism.

The dark years

The rise of Nazism and coming war would put both that vitality and optimism to the test. Lustig’s Prague childhood could only be expressed through words and old photographs in the film, but for the plight of the Jews in Prague and the Nazi camps the filmmakers made powerful use of fictional films based on Lustig’s writings about the period.

One of the most famous opening shots in all of cinema comes from the 1964 Jan Němec film “Diamonds of the Night,” where two boys are shown running from a moving train, scrambling up a hillside and into the forest while a hand-held camera follows them in their exhausted escape. The film’s screenplay was co-written by Lustig and based on his novella Darkness Casts No Shadow(Tmá nemá stín).

Lustig’s real-life escape from a transport train is emblematic of the “nine lives” he seemed to have been granted as that train evacuating prisoners to Dachau as the Soviet Army advanced in the East was accidentally hit by American bombers.

The documentary also makes use of footage from the 1963 film “Transport from Paradise (Transport z ráje ) directed by Zbyněk Brynych. Based on Lustig’s Night and Hope, the footage of deportation used in the documentary is so stark that it almost appears to be documentary footage itself.

In the film Lustig talks about the devaluing of life in the camps as something that traumatized him. It was not only Jewish lives that were devalued, Lustig says, but the Germans’ as well, as they possessed a sense of life in which only death had any meaning.

The moveable feast

The film covers Lustig’s postwar life as a journalist and writer, up until his post-1968 emigration to the US. Besides his old friends like Mahler, who was associated with many of the same people Lustig was after the war, the viewer is also given the perspective of Czech screen legend Květa Fialová and journalist and writer Karel Hvížďala, who at one point compares his friend to Hemingway’s description of Paris in the ‘20s as “a moveable feast.”

In many ways, this section is the most revealing, for while a lot has been written in English about Lustig’s wartime experiences, most notably by Lustig himself, learning about the intellectual fellowship he experienced over the years his writing-self was taking shape provides a picture much less seen. The fact that the film is filled with only half of its subject’s life shows what an eventful and involved life he led.

Throughout the film, Lustig’s friends say he dominated the room when he came in, and the same could be said of the film. He is able to talk about the most chilling experiences and then burst out with an irreverent joke, wax nostalgic over his childhood and burst out laughing again. The film is revealing in what it shows of history and literary history, but its center is an indomitable spirit who even a year after his death is able to dominate a room.