‘Treasure’ Director Julia von Heinz Wants You to Call Your Family

The new movie starring Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry as a Jewish father-daughter duo explores transgenerational Holocaust trauma.

Never underestimate the power of speaking up. Ten years ago, German filmmaker Julia von Heinz messaged novelist Lily Brett about the rights to Brett’s novel “Too Many Men,” which von Heinz hoped to adapt for the screen. She expected nothing — but was surprised by a response from Brett, connecting her to her agent. When von Heinz’ 2013 film “Hanna’s Journey” screened at the MoMA in New York City, where fellow German Brett was living, Brett and her agent attended the screening. They loved the film, and a creative collaboration was born.

Treasure” is the third in von Heinz’ “Aftermath Trilogy” — films exploring the generational effects of the Holocaust, in Germany and globally. It follows “Hanna’s Journey” and 2020’s “And Tomorrow the Entire Word,” which became Germany’s Oscar contender for Best International Feature. “Treasure” is von Heinz’ first English-language feature.

The film, which opened in theaters across the U.S. on June 14, takes place in the early 90s; it stars Lena Dunham as Ruth Rothwax, a New York-based journalist, and Stephen Fry as her father, Edek, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor. Ruth travels to Poland to explore her family’s roots; Edek, fearing the trip could be dangerous, attaches himself to the journey.

“Too Many Men” is based on Lily Brett’s relationship with her survivor father Max. Von Heinz’ mother, like Lily, is “second generation”: the child of Holocaust survivors. Her mother was the one who gave Julia the novel when it came out in 1999.

I caught up with von Heinz amid the film’s screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival in early June, a few days after the director’s 48th birthday.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You just had a birthday. Can you tell me how you celebrated?

Ah, yeah! We were just the family this year, getting ready for this busy time. Just my three kids, my mother, my husband [“Treasure” co-writer and co-producer John Quester], and my aunt.

You have said that “Treasure” is “about every cruelty that happens in the world.” What would you say we can gain from exploring themes of cruelty? How do we move forward by exploring those themes?

It’s not so long that we’ve known the term “transgenerational trauma.” For sure, Lily had never heard about it when she wrote that novel. But we read it in Lily’s novel, and we see Ruth experiencing this trauma. Pain travels through families until someone is able to feel it. This is the case with every trauma.

So, you ask how to move on after cruelty and trauma. By unpacking, and speaking about it, and sharing emotions — instead of holding them inside, like Edek thinks he has to. For his daughter to move on, and to look forward and see a future for herself, he needs to unpack. He needs to show his emotions and to tell his story. And this is not only for Holocaust-related things. This is really for everything in a family.

There’s an expression: “The only way out is through.” You can’t get out by going around — you have to go through it. In the course of the movie, Edek comes to realize that.

He doesn’t think at all that he will feel something, and that this trip will lead him anywhere else. He wants to go back only to protect her. But yeah, at the end, it’s also a start of some healing for him.

But he is a very healthy person, in my opinion — how he lives and how he looks forward, and how he survived all this and built a family and a new life. It’s really her who needs a lot of healing.

Oh, that’s interesting. You felt that she was more in need of the process than he was.

So much more. He’s lived his life, in some ways — he’s in a totally different time of his life than she is. But she seems not to be able to move on. Maybe she loves [her ex-husband] Garth. We can see that a little bit. He seems to know it very well. [Laughs.] So, yeah, it’s the beginning for her [being able] to heal and to look forward. And she needed to go back to his past, and walk in his shoes, to be able to do that.

Yesterday I met a 60-year-old lady, and she hugged me after the screening. And she said that like Ruth, she had [a history of] self-harming. And her mother survived the Holocaust. It’s something — self-destructive behaviors — that second-generation daughters might do.

I have some friends who are second-generation. I haven’t spoken a lot with them about it. I should. But as you said, “transgenerational trauma” is a recent term. We didn’t talk about it, for a long time. People didn’t acknowledge it.

No. We didn’t.

I cried when Edek was holding onto his father’s coat — the coat Ruth purchases back for him, from the Polish family living in what had been Edek’s family’s home. I’m surprised to hear you say that Edek is so healthy about his past. He tells his daughter that these things don’t matter, but then he sees the coat and realizes it does matter. So for him, also, the only way out is through.

I just meant to say, he’s so resilient. He went through all of that, but he looked forward. Made a life. I heard so much about the real Max Brett. It’s amazing, the life he built. And that’s what I mean. His resilience has something very healthy. Of course, he needs to confront [his trauma]. But in a way, he manages life, while Ruth doesn’t.

Since you were working on this film for 10 years, you didn’t specifically mean for it to come out among current global events. But it could not be more timely — for the world, for all of us.

I feel that too. It’s the right moment.

What else would you like to make sure that viewers know?

I would like my audience to pick up their phone, after they see the film, and call a family member that they know they haven’t talked to enough. Maybe they know they are lonely. Maybe they know they have gone through something, and they haven’t talked enough about it. That’s what I really wish to say to my audience: Do that. Because it can be so difficult to touch some subjects in a family, and I feel we should.

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