Archive for March, 2014

My New Film: How Sigmund Freud escaped from the Nazis

The Escape Of Sigmund Freud

A film by David Cohen

I’m preparing a new film which tells the story of how the world-famous creator of psychoanalysis managed to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna protected and helped by the Nazi who was meant to make his life a misery.  Anton Sauerwald ignored Berlin’s orders and gave Freud and his family assistance, much to their relief and amazement.

This is a true story based on a book by David Cohen (The Escape Of Sigmund Freud) published in the UK, US, Japan, Brazil and other countries.

Freud managed to leave Vienna with sixteen members of his family, and his overseer, Sauerwald, arranged to sell some of Freud’s art collection to pay for the extortionate exit visas. He then sent Freud’s possessions to England by lorry, and later visited him in London (1938). On that visit Freud asked Sauerwald if he could drive his Viennese surgeon to London to operate on Freud’s cancer of the jaw. But the most striking part of this strange relationship between the second most famous Jew in the world (Einstein was the first) and Sauerwald, a committed Nazi, is the fact that Sauerwald found the Freud family’s hidden foreign bank books. If his superiors knew they existed, Freud would have been immediately arrested.

Sauerwald kept the bank books to himself, never reported them, and gave them back to Freud, without asking for a penny for himself.

After the war Sauerwald was arrested and tried for stealing from the Freuds. He asked Anna Freud to write a letter explaining what had happened. Perhaps influenced by the fact that her four aunts (Freud’s elderly sisters) all died in concentration camps, Anna hesitated for some time before finally writing a letter which declared Sauerwald’s innocence.

The events the Freud family endured are alarming and terrifying, yet strange and surprising twists of character and fate take place, leading almost to a sense of disbelief. Could this really have happened? Did a deep-dyed Nazi actually help Freud escape? Many Holocaust stories defy belief, but this one is different. It exposes the contradictory nature of the human mind, and it seems in keeping for this to happen to Freud, whose fame derived from studying the mind.

David Suchet is attached to play Freud, and there are other great parts. If we succeed, The Escape of Sigmund Freud could become one of the great Shoah films of our time, showing the horrific change that fell upon the Jews of Europe once the Nazis took control of their homelands. This is a sad, terrifying and moving story, but it still has moments of dry humour, since it was Freud’s sense of gallows humour which kept him sane.

Freud’s escape shows how complicated relations between Jews and Nazis could become. Who could imagine that a strange friendship like this could develop?  Although Freud was world famous for understanding the human mind, he was at a loss to explain why Sauerwald helped him, and Sauerwald too could not understand it.

The film will be shot largely hand-held, so that the sense of actuality will be preserved. The intention is to help the audience see the events unfolding in front of their eyes as events happening to the Freud family, and not as an ‘historical’ film.

It is really an amazing story and I am looking forward to making it.

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March 21, 2014 at 5:31 pm Leave a comment

A gun to the head is wordless teaching

It’s amazing how two things that have no obvious relationship to each other can be brought into an insightful and meaningful relationship. For example, today I understood about certain Zen practices by reading a story about life in Auschwitz.

The Auschwitz incident is from Primo Levi’s recollections from Auschwitz, Moments Of Reprieve. This collection has a chapter about a German criminal at Auschwitz named Eddy who he calls The Juggler. Levi explains how he had a piece of paper and a pencil stub hidden on him, and one day on work duty in a cellar, he sat down to try to write a letter home. This was forbidden – the paper, the pencil, the act of writing home, all of it. Engrossed in his writing Levi was unaware that Eddy, a sub Kapo (or foreman), was sitting there watching him write.

Here is how Levi describes it; ‘I hadn’t reckoned with Eddy’s noiseless step. I noticed him only when he was already watching me. Instinctively – or, rather, stupidly, – I opened my fingers. The pencil fell, but the sheet of paper descended slowly to the ground, swaying like a dead leaf. Eddy lunged to pick it up, then slammed me to the ground with a violent slap. But there: as I write the sentence today, and as I am typing the word “slap”. I realise that I am lying, or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader. Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer.’

Now here is the bit that interests me in relation to Zen slaps and shouts:

‘A slap inflicted in the camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today’s here and now. Precisely: it had a meaning: it was simply another way of expressing oneself. In that context it meant roughly “Watch out, you’ve really made a big mistake this time, you’re endangering your life, maybe without realising it, and you’re endangering mine as well. ” But between Eddy, a German thief and juggler, and me, a young inexperienced Italian , flustered and confused , such a speech would have been useless, not understood (if nothing else because of language problems) , out of tune, and much too roundabout.

For this very reason, punches and slaps passed among us as daily language, and we soon learned to distinguish  meaningful blows from the others inflicted out of savagery, to create pain and humiliation, and which often resulted in death. A slap like Eddy’s was akin to the friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition. Nothing more in short than a nonverbal communication. ‘

It struck me that Eddy’s slap, like the punches and blows that Levi describes, are akin to the shouts and blows from a staff that I’ve read about as part of Zen training for monks in meditation.  In the meditation hall, where speech is a distraction, and where the monks are being taught not to rely on speech, I can see how shouts and blows would deliver a nonverbal message that would convey a lot of meaning to the monk on the receiving end.

I know these Zen blows are intended to rouse monks dozing off in meditation, or are meant to give a shock to the meditator, leading to ‘sudden’ enlightenment, but I can see that a master just wouldn’t want to verbally explain why a monk was screwing up, and so just smacks him with a stick to say ‘wake up’. And wake up means both stop falling asleep and also become enlightened.

It seems to me that Eddy’s slap and a master’s blow with a stick have a great similarity. The difference is that Levi’s silent lesson was one that saved him from possible death, allowing him to survive Auschwitz, while a monk’s lesson is one that enhances his life, especially his spiritual life.

When people sit down to meditate, they often get up after a short time complaining about pain in their legs. Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama, author of that wonderful book, Opening The Hand Of Thought, had a remedy for that. He said just imagine that there was someone standing behind you with a gun aimed at your head, and if you were to get up he would fire. He said this kept people sitting for much longer! This really has nothing to do with Primo Levi but I always liked this idea and so I have added it here for my pleasure.

March 21, 2014 at 12:15 am Leave a comment


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