Not until 21 years after he finished film school in 1997 did Amichai Greenberg release his first feature film, “The Testament,” which is playing in Tenafly next week as part of the Israeli American Council’s Cinematec series of Israeli films. (See box.)
Along the way, Mr. Greenberg held a number of different jobs. Perhaps the one most relevant to “Testament,” the story of how a Holocaust researcher’s identity is upended when he discovers a secret about his mother, was the year he spent traveling the length and breadth of Israel filming Holocaust survivors for the Spielberg video archive.
“This was a very, very intense experience,” Mr. Greenberg said. “I collected two testimonials a day. Every day, two stories.
“They could be in different parts of the country. In the morning I could be in Beersheva, with a new immigrant who just came from Russia in a one-room apartment, where I would put the camera on one side of the bed and the witness would be on the other side, with just enough space for the camera to focus. Then in the afternoon I could be in a very rich, successful neighborhood of Tel Aviv, sitting in an enormous house with one of the scientists who developed Israel’s nuclear weapons as he gives his testimony. Seeing all these pieces of the country, and the people having these stories….
“You would hear those horrific stories and then, at the end of each testimony, they would invite their family to join. You understand that their children and grandchildren don’t think about the story their father or grandfather went through. It was quite shocking to realize that I knew this person for only two or three hours and now I know something about them that their relatives will never know.”
Mr. Greenberg understood how survivors were reluctant to share the details of their stories with their family. His father, Ari Greenberg, who had been a child when the Nazis invaded, did not want to share his story for the cameras.
“He was born in 1935,” Amichai said. “He was in the ghetto of Krakow. He was hidden by his father, along with his mom and a sister and a relative, in a warehouse where the Nazis stored the leftover furniture from the Jews after they were sent to the camps. My grandfather was able to smuggle them out and give them false identities. With their false identities, they went through Poland to Hungary and stayed in Budapest until the end of the war. My grandfather stayed and went through the camps.”
His grandfather, Efraim Greenberg, survived, and came to New York after the war. Ari Greenberg studied at Yeshiva University before making aliyah in 1969. Amichai was born shortly afterward, in Haifa.
Some film students have known that they wanted to be behind a camera for almost their whole lives. Mr. Greenberg was not one of them. As he tells it, his film studies were a bit of a fluke. He was two weeks back from his post-army trip to South America, walking around Jerusalem in the middle of the winter, trying to figure out what to do next, when he stumbled across Ma’aleh, the modern Orthodox film school that had opened only recently.
“Let’s try that,” he thought, and went in, convincing administrators to accept him in the middle of the year.
He found a productive chaos in Ma’aleh, “a bohemian environment with a big sense of freedom and introspection.” At 22, he was one of the younger students — some were 30, 45, even 60. Some were newcomers to religious observance. Some were not religious.
“This whole balagan” — this mixed up jumble — “created a very cozy feeling that was an inspiration to me.”
Ma’aleh gave him the skills to make a movie, but the impetus was a personal crisis he had 10 years ago. “It was an existential experience of being lost,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Everything went wrong. Nothing worked. I was depressed. I remember just sitting home, not knowing what to do with myself.
“I found myself taking a camera, walking down the street, just taking photos, coming home and working on them in Photoshop. I realized it nourished me. I said to myself, this is something I can build on, something truthful that nourishes me, that doesn’t depend on money, on whether people like it or not.
“Since then, I started building my life on things that felt truthful to me.”
He realized he wanted to make a film. “I was trying to find a plot that would manifest the situation” of his identity crisis, Mr. Greenberg said. He came upon the question of losing your Jewish identity.
“It’s nothing and everything at the same time,” he said. “If it turns out your mother is not Jewish — on the one hand, nothing happens. You’re the same person. On the other, everything changes. I thought that could be the center of my plot.”
“Testament” was filmed in part in Austria. It was the first Israeli movie to be co-produced by Austria, which supported the film financially. Austrian complicity with the Holocaust is at the core of the movie. The protagonist, Yoel, played by Israeli actor Ori Pfeffer, is a Holocaust researcher who is trying to find proof of a massacre before a building is built over what he believes to be a mass grave. While the village in the film is fictional, the details are based on the massacre in Rechnitz, Austria, in March, 1945, when 200 Jewish slave laborers were hunted down and killed for entertainment by local notables attending a party at a castle. “The Testament” incorporates footage from a documentary about the massacre.
Filming a movie about a Holocaust massacre in Austria was not a simple experience.
“The crew we had there were extremely involved,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The actors were very touched, really wanted to help the film. Even the production assistants read the script, which is kind of rare.
“That was on one hand.
“On the other hand, when I was going to scout for the village where it was going to be shot, 70 kilometers from Vienna, in each and every village you would find this big stone with a plaque ‘In memory of our beloved soldiers’ with SS and Wermacht soldiers named. And fresh flowers on it.
“I saw this and stopped breathing for a second. I was shocked.
“There’s a sense of the split screen when you are there. I cannot forget that my father was running for his life not far away. Yet most of the people I met with, if not all, were extremely generous and extremely passionate.”
Mr. Greenberg worked with a local scouting agent to find his Austrian actors; among his casting needs was a woman who could play an Austrian politician. “I know a great actress, but she’s quite famous,” the scout told him. Her name was Michaela Rosen. “I don’t know if she would do the part.”
Don’t worry, Mr. Greenberg said. “Worst case, if she’s offended, tell her it’s an Israeli director who doesn’t have manners,” he reported telling the scout.
“Two days later, I get a phone call from Vienna,” he continued. “The agent is really excited and moved. She would like to audition. The next trip, we do this audition. She was brilliant. I immediately gave her the part.
“She said, ‘Do you want to know why I’m interested in the role? I’m 59. Four years ago I learned for the first time that I am Jewish.’ She said that only her relatives knew. She had never said it to anyone publicly.
“When we premiered in Venice, we had a great screening. There was great applause. A 10 minute standing ovation. And then we had a Q and A. Someone asked, ‘What’s your personal connection to the film?’
“She stood up and said to all of them: ‘This is the first time I’m speaking about it, but I’m Jewish.’ It was extremely moving.”
What: “The Testament,” a film by Amichai Greenberg, followed by discussion led by Dr. Stuart Liebman, an emeritus professor of film studies at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
When: Sunday, June 10. Reception, 7 p.m; screening, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
How much: $12 JCC members, $14 public.
Advance tickets: (201) 408-1427.