Film & Television

Andrea Simon’s New Documentary Examines the “Endless Loop of History”

Wagenstein’s ability to see and embrace the beauty of life, despite witnessing and surviving atrocities is stunning.

Angel Raymond Wagenstein was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1922. His leftist Jewish family was forced to emigrate to France, where he spent his childhood. But, he returned to Bulgaria in time to attend a lyceum and join a partisan anti-fascist group (he would later marry Zora, one of the group’s young leaders). He and two other “beardless boys” burned a warehouse filled with sheepskin coats that were meant to aid the freezing German army. He was arrested, severely beaten and condemned to death.

“The death sentence then was something ordinary,” Wagenstein remembers, “Like saying ‘I’ll have a coffee please.’” He describes his move to central prison as, “One of the most beautiful memories of my life.” Prison, compared to the sheer brutality of police headquarters, meant freedom.

Wagenstein’s ability to see and embrace the beauty of life, despite witnessing and surviving atrocities is stunning. “Why am I alive? I cannot say. You never know who the bullet is going to hit.”

After the Red Army arrived, Wagenstein was sent to Moscow to study screenwriting at the VGIK, founded in 1919 by Lenin. For the Soviet communists, the film industry was a propaganda machine, and Wagenstein’s screenplays were meant to serve not merely as entertainment, but as political weapons for the party. Over the years, however, his more than fifty screenplays evolved into elegant allegories that criticized totalitarianism and dramatized his growing disillusionment with the evolution of communism.

His most famous work, Sterne (or Stars), directed by Konrad Wolf, was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Yet, it was banned in Bulgaria for its ‘abstract humanism.’ “It was an inconvenient film,” Wagenstein admits. Sterne tells the story of a Nazi officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl who is eventually sent off to a death camp in Poland. Although Bulgaria prided itself on not deporting its Jews during Hitler’s occupation, it did deport displaced Jews from Thrace and Macedonia. Shedding light on this duplicity (and revisionism) did indeed make Wagenstein’s movie “inconvenient.” Simon has included several scenes from Sterne, and they are among her film’s most powerful.

That said, virtually every moment of Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon will stay with you. Distinguished film historian Thomas Elsaesser, Professor Emeritus of Film and Television Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Visiting Professor at Yale University, was effusive in his praise of an early cut. “What an amazing film! I cannot remember being so moved by a documentary as I was by the opening of Art is a Weapon. Those first ten minutes in particular are just wonderful. They make the man, the place and the whole history come alive, in all his moving humanity and tragic conflicts between who he is as a person, filmmaker and storyteller, and the ideals he didn’t want to betray and yet saw failing so miserably . . . [Simon] really [has] created a gem of a film, honoring this exceptional man, who is a marvelous storyteller and visibly enjoyed having this portrait crafted.”

Having lived through revolutions, imprisonment and torture, Wagenstein sees modern history as “bezkonechnik,” an endless loop. Yet he remains an optimist. His love of life is evident in his vast body of work (which includes prize-winning novels as well as his screenplays).

“Whenever you write,” Wagenstein tells us, “The ink of your life bleeds through the page.”

Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon, along with a Q&A with the film’s director Andrea Simon, will be featured in the New York Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, January 22 at 8:30 pm at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. You can order tickets here.

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