Stephen Fry on his new Holocaust survivor drama Treasure: “A script can be idea-shaped or human-shaped. This was human-shaped”

At his first Berlin Film Festival with a collaboration with Lena Dunham, Fry spoke to us about learning Polish, the experiences of Holocaust survivors and his memories of his grandfather.

22 February 2024

By Lou Thomas

Treasure (2024)

In Treasure, Stephen Fry’s latest big-screen role sees him play Holocaust survivor Edek Rothwax, who returns to Poland to accompany his daughter Ruth (Lena Dunham) on a trip to his old family home and Auschwitz. He’s a charismatic and lively character, who befriends everyone he meets but is initially not keen to see either the apartment his family were evicted from in 1940, nor the death camp he survived before eventually resettling in New York.

Ruth – ‘Ruthie’ to Edek – is still sad and lonely from her split with husband Garth, who, much to her chagrin, is still friendly with Edek. The pair bicker their way around Poland, eventually making the sombre trip to Auschwitz, but not before calling in on Edek’s old abode and discovering that the incumbent family still have a bowl, tea set and more that once belonged to the Rothwax family.

Directed by Julia von Heinz, this sensitive and moving story is based on the partly autobiographical novel Too Many Men by Lily Brett. That Fry is a warm, funny screen presence, and a great foil for Dunham’s traumatised Ruth, will not come as a surprise to British audiences, in particular, who have known Fry as a TV and film mainstay since the 1980s. Perhaps best known for his various roles in Blackadder, his partnership with Hugh Laurie or presenting game show QI, Fry excelled as Oscar Wilde in 1997’s Wilde, had a key role in V for Vendetta (2005) and voices the audiobook version of the Harry Potter novels. That’s without getting into his novels and non-fiction – his next project is to finish his fourth book on Greek mythology.

The day after the world premiere of Treasure at the Berlin Film Festival, Fry was in welcoming, enthusiastic mood as we sat down to talk about the film in a Berlin hotel suite. Asked how his first time at the festival is going he says: “I’m really enjoying it.” Fry operates a production company named Sprout Pictures with producing co-partner Gina Carter, who used to attend the festival almost every year with Michael Winterbottom. He says: “She used to tell me stories about it, and I was always thinking, ‘I must go and spend the night at Berghain.’”

What was it about the script that made you think, ‘I’ve got to do this’?

It was the truthfulness of the core story. The films one loves best are fantastically specific and extraordinarily general at the same time. The Godfather (1972) is amazingly specific: it’s Italian-American mafia and gangsterism. But actually, everybody who’s seen it more than once knows it’s a film about being a brother, a son, a father, a sister and a daughter-in-law.

This film is set against the darkest possible historical moment of the 20th century. But it’s also just a father and daughter story, and they’re the strongest stories there are. Shakespeare’s last five plays were father and daughter plays. It’s a father wanting a daughter to be lovelier and more in demand and yet at the same time, never wanting her to step out of the house – and how dare a boy even look at her. And, “I like that previous boyfriend, I don’t like this one.” The nonsense of a father-daughter relationship but through the prism of one of the most important things about the Holocaust, the legacy of it. The ripples that keep rippling out.

It had the imagination to understand that if you are a survivor of Auschwitz, you have done some terrible things and seen some terrible things. You have to have done to have survived. You’re out there on the work detail every day. The very first day somebody in front of you stumbles, they get a rifle butt straight to the head. You don’t make the mistake of helping them to their feet, or you get hit yourself. You suspend your humanity very quickly. Someone dies in front of you, the first thing you do is take their food, don’t say a prayer.

Then it was an incredibly different life for survivors who made it to America. Suddenly they get a ticket to New York: “Wow, fuck, the food, the delis!” Jews standing on their own two feet shouting in confidence – and equal citizens in this country. What a miracle.

And you have a beautiful baby girl. She asks you, “What was it like?” “You don’t want to know.” The more she gets older, the more she wants to know. Then she’s going off to Poland and to Auschwitz to see for herself. He still thinks he knows what Poland was like. It was full of collaborators and antisemites and Nazis. A girl on her own in such a country who was Jewish. “I’ll have to go with her, and then it will stop.”

And so on top of that, the ordinary banal comedy of father-daughter. You know how a script could be idea-shaped, or it could be human-shaped? I thought it was human-shaped. The ideas were in it, but they were shaped by very believable human behaviour and responses. Plus, I saw my grandfather in it.

You had family members who were sent to Auschwitz, didn’t you?

Yes, I’m afraid so. You have to make jokes about that – there are certain kinds of jokes you feel would be quite wrong, but you’re making jokes to let the pressure out of the balloon. I was there with Lena and I said, “Yeah, it’s the Harvard of death camps, isn’t it?” It’s an awful thing, but it’s getting it out of your system, that this is the place.

There’s a wonderful story of Billy Wilder and Audrey, his wife. They’re somewhere, might be Berlin, might be near the Polish border. They’ve got a day off, and they ought to go to Auschwitz. They both had family there. They’re getting ready to go down from the hotel to their car, they have a row about something. And then in the car they’re needling each other. They’re going through the gates. Billy turns toward her and says, “Well, thanks honey. Now you’ve ruined Auschwitz for me.”

You learned Polish for the film. How was that process?

I was in LA doing The Morning Show. I had some time off, and the production provided me with this wonderful person, Magda in Warsaw, and we would Skype. She taught me the pronunciation and the structure of the language. In a way, you learn the song of a language. The pronunciation is the cadence. And Polish has a very particular music; all the words, the stress is on the pronounced syllable.

Did you do any other research?

I watched all of Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. That was particularly handy, because the hero of Three Colours White (1994) is Zbigniew [Zamachowski], who plays the taxi driver in our film. He’s such a wonderful actor. The moment you see the big, wide, smiling face, you just fall in love with him. And then there are Netflix thrillers and things in Polish – I would have them all on in the house and just hear Polish, day after day after day.

Did you read the source novel, Too Many Men?

Yes, I read it about two months afterwards. Funny thing about Lily Brett: she’s very, very popular in Australia, hugely popular here in Germany, and very popular in America. But almost unheard of in Britain. I don’t even know if she’s published. I had to go through a second-hand bookshop to get a copy. Then I read her other books, and she’s such an easy writer to read, but beautifully funny and complex and delightful as well.

And [I was glad to] have her support, because I was playing her beloved father Max. She went with him to Poland and had some of these adventures in a very similar way. She was so generous in her encouragement, saying I had him and his character.

Behind the scenes during production of Treasure (2024)

How was it working with Lena Dunham?

I came to it loving Girls, thinking she was an extraordinary talent. And slightly thinking, “she might be rather forbidding”. But she’s so open, warm and wonderful, and we hit it off. If two actors do a lot of the scenes together, you can get your Daniel Day-Lewis approach, someone who is [fully method, not coming out of character between takes]. Then there are other actors who are just naughty and play games all the time, and just go like that straight into the scene. Michael Gambon used to be like that, just completely gamesome and fun, but the performance was always brilliant.

But most of us are in between. We don’t go deep into the characters such that we can’t have a sandwich with our fellow actors. But on the other hand, there are scenes where you do need just a bit to get into yourself. And Lena and I exactly meshed on that. We were never too trivial for each other or too serious.

One part of the film that particularly interested me was the section where Ruth goes back to reclaim a tea set and other items from the home Edek used to live in until his family were forcibly evicted by the Nazis. Ruth wants to reclaim their items from the start while Edek is very reluctant at first, before he starts agreeing with her. What’s your opinion on this reclaiming of property?

A wall is a wall, a brick is a brick, but a brick from Auschwitz is something very different from another kind of brick. Objects have meaning, and the treasure which is dug up is the deeds to her house. She doesn’t want the deeds to her house, but she wants what the treasure means, which is the trust and the gift of her father. He’s giving her his memories, he’s giving her the past, which he’s withheld all her life up until then. And I think that’s a terribly moving idea and very truthful.

The film is set in 1991, but what do you feel the film says for today’s audience?

It says that for all the terrors and power and transformative energies of history – which can propel people around the world like pinballs, and treat them with such violence and cruelty – the strongest links we have are the links of father-daughter, mother-daughter and mother-father. Those are the ones that you rely on.

Poor Ruthie’s emotional life is totally broken with Garth, her husband, and the relationship with her father. And [she has] never really spoken properly to her mother about her traumas. What really brings them together is not history. History can’t make restitution in that way. Only two people talking to each other can. So it is a human film. It’s not about being a Jew, being a victim of Nazism or the Holocaust itself. That’s the lens through which you look at something as primal as a father-daughter relationship.

How do you feel about Edek?

I would like him and be exasperated by him. He reminds me very much of my grandfather, a big bonhomous figure who was always not seeing or choosing to talk about the dark side of life. I would always cross London to go to school and come back to go home. He’d give me lunch or take me to the Waldorf or the Ritz. And I’d say, “I came first in Latin.” He’d say, “Very good, very good.” “And I came second in English.” “Second, what is second?” I made a mistake once saying, “Well, maybe the boy who came first had the grandfather who wanted him to come first.”

Always that kind of thing. Everything had to be the best. When he died, we would open these drawers in his wardrobe and see these silk ties, perfectly wrapped. The smell of mothballs and perfect collars in their leather collar cases. He had that Jewish thing of, “I’ve made it, I have money. I am assimilated. I’m an English gentleman. And I have tweed jackets.”

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