Andreas Kessler spoke with Solzy at the Movies about his short film, Nakam, which recently advanced to the Oscars shortlist.
Nakam runs about a half hour and is one of 15 films that advanced in the category of Best Live Action Short. The film is inspired by the story of Jewish partisan Mordechai “Motele” Schlein, a violinist who joined up with a group of partisans after his parents and his sister were deported to Auschwitz. He had been hiding in the Gernsteins’ attic and overheard the Nazis murder them. Motele made his way into the forest where he eventually met up with Moshe Gildenman and his son, Simcha. They had a group of partisans and were aiding the Allied forces in whichever way they could. Unfortunately, Motele died when the Nazis attacked them but his violin lives on and is still played to this day.
With the increase in antisemitism in recent years, Nakam could not be more timely or relevant. As far as I know, Motele was not involved with Abba Kovner’s partisan group, which was named Nakam. It’s a Hebrew word that means revenge.
Congrats on Nakam making the Oscars shortlist for Best Live Action Short! How honored are you that Nakam has been shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars?
Andreas Kessler: Thank you so much! I am thrilled that we are now on the shortlist with Nakam. This is a great honor and now we are excited to see how it is going on.
What was the genesis behind making a short film about Mordechai “Motele” Schlein?
Andreas Kessler: When I first read about it in the newspaper, I immediately knew I wanted to make a film about the story of Motele Schlein. I was drawn to it and couldn’t let it go for years because in my eyes it wasn’t only about revenge but also about the question if you would sacrifice your only friend in order to take revenge for your family. Once you get to know a place it must be hard to avoid getting emotionally connected to something or somebody. Nakam is about the friendship between the pianist and the young boy. When we started writing the script with Fabien Virayie, we realised that we wanted to show different perspectives on this story. On the one hand, the partisans who do everything so Mitka’s attack on the boy doesn’t fail. Something that is totally understandable to me. But then, there is also the perspective of the young boy who struggles with the huge task he is given and who wants to save his only friend.
How did the cast come together?
Andreas Kessler: I was very lucky to be able to work with so many great actors. Anton Krymskiy, who plays Motele Schlein, even committed himself to practicing the violin for two and a half months before the shooting started. Jevgenij Sitochin practiced piano playing and during rehearsals there was a wonderful dynamic between him and Anton where they both could learn from each other. Peter Miklusz, who plays the SS-Officer, even learned speaking Russian for his role. On top of that, I was so lucky to work with wonderful actors like Rostyslav Bome, who came all the way from Ukraine to play the role of the Jewish-Ukrainian partisan. The whole restaurant was cast with Ukrainian actors, which was extremely important to me since we wanted to be as authentic as possible. Even the extras who portrayed the townsfolk were Ukrainian speaking. It was a great pleasure to work on such a multilingual set. However, it is a tragedy that Ukraine is now in a brutal war again not only 100 years after being a war-torn country during WW2.
What was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Andreas Kessler: There were many challenging aspects. The fact that we had to find a child actor who would be able to talk in different languages and even play the violin during his acting scenes was very challenging. But Anton committed himself fully and I was impressed how he would get better and better in playing the violin. Also, the scale of the production was challenging because I wanted to make sure that every detail goes along with the story. Consequently, we took a lot of time to find the right locations and I wanted to make sure that every actor would be able to fully engage with the surroundings on set. To create an authentic atmosphere in which you would feel the constant threat from the Nazi occupiers was very important to me.
Have you considered expanding Nakam into a feature-length film?
Andreas Kessler: I am actually thinking about that and am already working on a story that gives even more insight into the world of the partisans. It also shows more of Motele becoming a partisan and everything what happens before the attack.
Antisemitism is at the highest levels that it has been in many years. As I watched the film, I felt that Nakam couldn’t be more timely and relevant because Jew-hatred continues to plague the world. Was this on your mind as you were weighing a decision on what to make for your diploma film?
Andreas Kessler: There are many topics that this film talks about, I believe. But the fact that antisemitism is at a very high level again was one of the most important reasons to make the film. In my eyes, it is necessary to look back into the past in order to understand the present better and also to make sure that what happened in the past will never happen again. So I believe that it is very important to talk about the subject of antisemitism. So I was happy that Nakam was also already screened for many students in Germany and the US so everybody could understand how timely this story can be. If this film creates awareness and empathy for Jewish people who suffer from antisemitism, I would be very glad.
What has the reaction been during the festival circuit?
Andreas Kessler: The reaction was very good. People seemed to be very touched by the film which ultimately is the goal of Nakam. When we celebrated the world premiere at the 46th Cleveland International Film Festival, I was thrilled to win the OSCAR Qualifying Award. The fact that it’s now not only running on large festivals like LA Shorts Fest and the Miami Jewish Film Festival but that it’s now shortlisted for the 95th OSCARS is great.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
Andreas Kessler: I hope they take away that there are no winners in war. Violence only creates more violence and those who suffer the most from wars are children. This was the same during WW2 as it is today in the horrible Russian war against Ukraine. To look back into the past might make us understand the present, draw some parallels and make us take hopefully useful decisions for the future. Because it matters the most that we should do everything possible to end all wars.
Nakam premiered during the 2022 Cleveland International Film Festival.
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