It’s the day of the premiere of Treasure at the 74th Berlinale, but director Julia von Heinz admits she finished the movie just three days ago. “We didn’t know what would happen after October 7th, but when it happened we felt that it had done something to the movie we just made. So we decided to finish it earlier and show it at Berlinale. I tried to finish it very quickly and present it here because we feel it’s the very moment for this film.” 

Based on the book Too Many Men by Australian author Lily Brett, the film looks back at the Holocaust from the year 1990, when widowed Auschwitz survivor Edek Rothwax (Stephen Fry) and his music journalist daughter Ruth Rothwax (Lena Dunham) take a road trip through a recently post-Communist Poland. Ruth is at a crossroads in her life back in New York, and seeks to know herself more fully by learning about the history that her parents never discussed. Edek is not particularly enthused about the journey, but feels obliged to accompany his beloved daughter through a land which he remembers as extremely dangerous for Jews. Ruth is a methodical planner and a tenacious asker of tough questions; Edek is a happy-go-lucky derailer of Ruth’s itinerary, extremely reluctant to reopen the old wounds of his trauma. Their journey is a rocky one, but the film is dappled with humour and leaves the viewer with warm impressions of humanity despite the terrible crimes of history. 

Treasure marks the third film in von Heinz’s ‘Aftermath’ trilogy, following the Antifa thriller And Tomorrow the Entire World and Hanna’s Journey, a film about a young German woman who grapples with her nation’s history after moving to Israel. In adapting this novel by Brett, herself the daughter of Auschwitz survivors, von Heinz has made a film about trauma as inheritance, and the vastly different ways each successive generation experiences the effects of the original pain. 

I sat down with von Heinz to discuss why Treasure could not have debuted at a more important time. 

HANNAH GHORASHI: You wrote a post on Instagram saying that you first reached out to author Lily Brett 10 years ago on Facebook. Can you tell me more of that story?

JULIA VON HEINZ: I was writing another script at the time, actually. It’s a film that hasn’t happened yet. I always procrastinate in a horrible way, and I was on Facebook at the time and Lily’s profile popped up. At the time, I had a bookshelf with ten of her books that I’ve read—I began reading her books when I was fifteen or sixteen, in the 1990s. And I was like, “wow, she’s on Facebook.” So I decided at that very moment to just write to her. It probably wasn’t a very intelligent message, but she answered me back some days later, and gave me the email address of her agent. 

HG: This is the last film in your Aftermath trilogy, which explores the effects of Germany’s Nazi history generations after World War II. Why was Treasure so important to make for you? 

JVH: [The trilogy] is about the third and the fourth generation and how the Holocaust still affects us. I’m third generation; the fourth generation is the generation of my children.They are now in their early 20s, and their generation has become very political again. But my mother, she’s second generation, and I feel Lily gives this generation a voice. Actually, it’s the only voice in literature that I can think of that speaks for that second generation, the children of the survivors. I really wanted to tell the story about the children of the survivors and what it did to them because they were so affected. 

HG: Do you think that the trauma of the Holocaust is something that very much permeates German cinema today, even in films that are not necessarily explicitly about the Holocaust? 

JVH: How can it not? It’s still so crazy how the generations didn’t talk about it, how 70% of the third generation still think their grandparents were in the resistance, because it’s so difficult to accept the thought that they were Nazis and that they were on the wrong side. There was so much silence between the generations. I think if we had more honesty we would know more about the history of that time as well, and maybe it would be easier to close that chapter. But we don’t. 

HG: And that generation is dying out as well, so we will only be able to discuss it in fictionalised stories. Switching gears a bit, I want to talk about Stephen Fry. He’s known across the world as this kind of quintessential British actor. How did he prepare to play a very Polish character? 

JVH: He learned Polish three months in advance. He’s very talented with language—when he imitates his Hungarian grandfather, it’s very funny and it’s already very much Edek. So it seems to be easy for him to adapt, to play Edek as a more Polish-American version of the Hungarian-British that he grew up with.

HG: When I watched the movie, I was struck by the portrayal of the difference in the effects of trauma on different generations. I was especially interested in Ruth’s character, in the way that trauma manifests as a binge eating disorder, and in the way she secretly self-harms by tattooing herself with her dad’s Auschwitz tattoo. 

JVH: I always thought it’s her mom’s [tattoo number], but that’s not explained. I always felt that she does that to be close to the mother, but that is free to interpret. I know that self-harming is a more female reaction usually, and I don’t want to talk in cliches, but harming others is more of a male reaction. Women tend to be aggressive against themselves, maybe because they were raised that way. For me and John [Quester], my co-writer, it was very important to find a visuality for all of Ruth’s inner monologue in the novel. We were very much inspired by an article that we once read about how the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, especially in Israel, tended to tattoo the numbers of their surviving grandparents on their arms. Quite a lot of them did that. They did it differently than Ruth does in this film, though. They do it to honour their grandparents. I liked the idea of it as a way to transfer Ruth’s inner monologues about all of her self-hate. And Ruth has a lot of self-hate in the book. 

HG: How did you strike a balance between humour and tragedy? Because it’s a light movie on the surface, but you deal with the darkest of subjects.

JVH: I think Lily balanced this tonality to perfection in the book. Where does the humour come from? It comes from a very clear self-observance. Lily looks to where we are ugly, where we are lying to ourselves and to everybody else. We struggle to be perfect, right? For me, this is a source of humour. And of course dialogue is a source of humour in Lily’s book. 

HG: I thought it was interesting that the movie is set in the year 1990, the year after the fall of communism in Poland. In the movie we see sympathy for the Polish people in the sense that, even if they or their ancestors weren’t murdered by Nazis, they’ve still suffered quite a bit. And even though Ruth is the child of a survivor, she’s ended up in a position of greater privilege than the people she meets in Poland. Everyone thinks she’s so wealthy and famous because she lives in New York and gets to interview The Rolling Stones for her job. 

JVH: It’s especially important to not come as a German director and point [accusingly] at Polish people, because Germans are responsible for the cruelty; none of it would have happened if Germany hadn’t caused it. There’s a bit more anger in Lily’s books than in the film, but she wrote them decades earlier. I needed a lot of help from our Polish partners, to not give the impression that I’m coming and saying, “they are responsible.” Not at all. The people of Poland suffered, and now they are very poor in this historical era, and this family happened to get the Rothwaxes’ old family home assigned. We don’t really know how, but even though they’re living in the Rothwax flat and using their old things, we can clearly see that they seem to be very poor. They take advantage of Ruth to sell her back the family possessions and gain some money. We can judge that, but they need money, and Ruth has it.

Julia von Heinz on the set of ‘Treasure’ (2024)

HG: So you actually shot scenes at Auschwitz? I imagine that was very difficult, both emotionally and technically.

JVH: Yes. It was very difficult. But they do shoot films a lot there nowadays, though you’re not allowed to shoot inside because it’s a big graveyard. We shot Auschwitz II-Birkenau—it was not the main Auschwitz that we all know with the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate. It’s the other part, the part that was the men’s section. When the Germans left it, they tried to burn it down. So no one didn’t manage so they’re still barracks, and the gate is still there. All the chimneys are still there. And the ashes of 1 million people are still on the ground, so it’s a big graveyard. Of course, no film team can step on that and do their work, because we need to respect this place. But they allowed us after many meetings and letters and emails to shoot at the gate of Auschwitz. You can see the parking lot in the movie, which is  the real one. We were even allowed to do some adjustments with historical cars. We also went to the real tracks where the trains arrived in 1944. We were not allowed to interfere when groups of visitors went in, however. When they visited Edek’s old barrack, we were allowed to take pictures from all the elements to recreate it in VFX. We actually shot that scene on a football field near Auschwitz, about 500 metres away with big green screens and half a barrack that we rebuilt. We then recreated everything in VFX. I’m so thankful that we were allowed to even do that, and take pictures, and gather all the material that we needed to recreate it. And I’m so thankful that they respect this place so much and are so protective about it. 

HG: Does Ruth end up reclaiming the old flat after Edek digs up the old deed? It wasn’t explicitly clear in the movie.

JVH: No, and that is an important moment, because in the end, she repeats his sentences. Edek says, “You can now reclaim this house, it is all yours.” She says, “Well, a house is just a house, or maybe not.” I liked that. She learns something from him, and accepts it. Because he is right and an object is only an object, and for her a replacement. She doesn’t need the object. She needs her [father’s] story. She needs his emotion. She needs his tears. 

When the parents were Nazis, for example, they felt guilt, and they wanted to protect themselves and their children from that. So they don’t talk. When the parents were victims, they might feel so much pain. So like we discuss in the film, they protect themselves and their children. They try so hard to hide it and to end it’s not working. That’s what we know about transgenerational trauma. We have to talk about it.

HG: Did you always have that ending in mind? Or did you go back and forth with other versions? 

JVH: We went back and forth a million times. Of course, we always knew it’s a one week travel story, it starts at the airport and ends at the airport, but it was a breakthrough for us as script writers when we had the “coat is a coat” idea. It’s a good line because when he touches some fabric—the coat, or the old couch, for example, he’s not able to protect himself anymore. That’s why we needed the coat with the fabric and the texture and probably some smell – we show Ruth smelling the coat. This idea was in a very late version, but we knew it would work.

HG: Another thing I thought was really interesting is the concept of time changing who you are. Objects stay the same, but you approach them again 50 years later as a completely different person. Was that an idea you wanted to show about first generation survivors, about how they wanted to completely reinvent themselves? 

JVH: Yeah, [Edek] needs to avoid his past. I always felt that he needed to have a strong reaction through the senses, like touching something to have a breakdown inside of him so he can no longer avoid his feelings. But yes, he cannot allow himself to cry. We mention that he didn’t even cry when his beloved wife died, because when he cries for her, everything else will come up. He lost so many beloved people, so he will never cry. So his crying is the greatest gift he can give Ruth. 

HG: Why do you think that people are unable to process their trauma even within the safety of their own family?

JVH: I think it’s because of protection. When the parents were Nazis, for example, they felt guilt, and they wanted to protect themselves and their children from that. So they don’t talk. When the parents were victims, they might feel so much pain. So like we discuss in the film, they protect themselves and their children. They try so hard to hide it and to end it’s not working. That’s what we know about transgenerational trauma. We have to talk about it.

HG: Were there any other films you looked to as inspiration or as reference points for this film?

JVH: We watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Zbigniew Zamachowski, who plays the taxi driver in this film, is the main character in the White film. And all three movies take place during the time period of the 1990s, so it was important to adapt the look of Poland at the time.

HG: In the 10 years since you first conceived the film, have you noticed antisemitism growing stronger in the world? 

JVH: I can only speak for Germany, but yes. We had one horrible right-wing politician here [Björn Höcke] who said horrible things about Auschwitz. And when this came out, even more people voted for him. And then on the other hand, we had people handing out cookies in Germany on October 7th. So it’s not hidden anymore. It’s so sad and so shocking.

HG: Do you have any thoughts about why that could be? Is it because the older generation is dying out and people don’t have that first-person connection anymore?

JVH: Antisemitism has come in all shapes and sizes throughout the centuries. It came out as anti-religious antisemitism in the Middle Age, it came out as racial antisemitism during the Nazi era. Now it’s coming out alongside criticism of Israel. But many similar elements are always repeated, and sometimes I really have no idea why we cannot get rid of this. I really don’t have an answer because I do not understand it, and our film shows where it can lead us to murdering and burning 6 million people. So we have to speak out about it, in whatever shape it comes.