by Maya Sarfaty
From a sophisticated work on vintage photographs, Maya Sarfaty’s Love it was not draws its most brilliant inspiration, creating, time after time, further photomontages, which, more and more complex and carefully edited in 3D, lead us by the hand into the world of Helena and Franz, in a love and suffering story where a usual documentary approach gives way to a mise en scène that successfully combines archive footage and present-day techniques.
Pictures of an impossible love
It all started with a song: Liebe war es nie – Love it was not. A title, this one, that calls into question one of the most unusual love stories ever, and which is entirely taken up by director Maya Sarfaty for her most recent documentary. But what is the love story told here? Actually, rather than an actual love story, we can speak of a heartbreaking love that, due to numerous adverse conditions, could never find fulfilment: the love that for years bound the young SS officer Franz Wunsch to a fascinating Auschwitz prisoner of Jewish origin, beautiful Helena Citron.
Love it was not, then, is also the title of a song that Helena had to sing in front of the officers, on the occasion of one of them’s birthday. And it was at that very moment that young Franz fell in love with her, enchanted by her birdlike voice. And the more the girl sang, the more her eyes gained humanity. So much so that they drove him to help her, her friends and her sister Rosa during the entire period of their imprisonment.
Was it true love? To Franz, Helena was forever considered to be the greatest love of his life. And for many, many years he enjoyed creating photomontages by cutting out a photo of her, taken by himself in Auschwitz, and pasting her head on other bodies, wearing different clothes and within different contexts.
And it is precisely from this work on vintage photographs that Maya Sarfaty’s Love it was not draws its most brilliant idea, creating, from time to time, further photomontages, which, more and more complex and carefully edited in 3D, lead us by the hand into the world of Helena and Franz, in a love and suffering story where a usual documentary approach gives way to a mise en scène that knows well how to combine archive footage and present-day techniques, giving the whole story a satisfying fluidity. A technique, this one, that has been employed over and over again, even in documentary filmmaking. Yet here, with the exception of sporadic interviews, it plays the leading role throughout the entire film.
Helena’s young, smiling face contrasts strongly with her deportee uniform. And immediately, we see the girl standing in the middle of a barrack, surrounded by officers and other internees, all intent on hearing her sing. And, again, figures of workmates looking at her with envy and talking behind her back because of all the privileged treatment she received, bodies lying on the ground after numerous beatings and images of children – Helena’s own grandchildren – smiling before being deported. Till, many years later, even inside a courtroom.
Film and photography, computer graphics and old archive footage coexist perfectly here, making for a more than controversial story, where the relationship between victim and perpetrator becomes far more complex than one can imagine, and where one never really knows where the boundary between true love and struggle for survival lies.
Love it was not. It was never love. Or was it? The director makes this underlying ambiguity one of her workhorses. And the whole thing works. And it contributes to making the story even more complex and layered than it might initially have seemed, with characters coming to life on screen with strong, well-defined personalities. And here another chapter of history unknown to most is finally made known. And history itself takes on, here, the features of an imaginary fable. A fable that, despite all its romanticism, cannot help but hurt like a punch to the stomach.
Original title: Ahava Zot Lo Hayta
Directed by: Maya Sarfaty
Country/year: Israel, Austria / 2020
Running time: 86’
Screenplay: Maya Sarfaty
Cinematography: Ziv Berkovich
Produced by: Langbein & Partner Media, Yes Docu