When parents die, the children are left with the remnants of their forebears’ past which they must reconcile with their own lives. There are always unanswered questions, memory gaps, obfuscations, and lies of omission. In the award winning Tito’s Glasses, written by Adriana Altaras as adapted from her best selling autobiography, the actress and director with the assistance of adroit documentarian Regina Schilling, attempts to confront, reconcile, and expiate the painful/glorious memories and mysteries of her family’s past which she never understood and which her parents rarely discussed with her.
Altaras is brought to a new awakening of her family history upon viewing memorabilia, super 8 movies, pictures, and artifacts while settling her parents’ estate after their death. It is an alternative perspective which stirs her toward further discovery to examine whether her father’s stories of his heroism fighting with Tito as a partisan to liberate Croatia from the Nazis are exaggerated or authentic. Altaras delves into various accounts of her parents’ experiences as Jewish Croatians struggling against fascism and embracing communism after WWII. Many secrets come to the light, while others remain in the shadows. As Altaras shares by the end of the film, some answers can only be intuited and imagined through thoughtful meditation or they may never be known and reconciliation may never occur in its fullness.
Schilling documents on the ground Adriana Altaras as she journeys by car to places (Giessen, Germany, Vila Bled in Slovenia, Lake Garda, Italy, Split, Croatia, Zagreb, Croatia, Rab Island, Croatia), which were part of her childhood or settings from her parents’ past. The documentary is an intriguing travel log from Germany to the former Yugoslavia. In Altaras’ quest to discover the truth of hers and her parents’ identity, the filmmaker reveals an exquisite portrait of the perplexed, thoughtful, ironic Altaras, daughter of Holocaust survivors (her mother, aunt and grandmother), who were rounded up by the Ustasha, Croatia’s fascist equivalent of the Nazi party and placed in a concentration camp on Rab Island. The filmmaker allows Altaras to candidly bare her soul about her need to exorcise the dybbuks (dislocated spirits of the dead), which haunt her at night in her dreams, and plague her darkest thoughts about her upbringing.
After grounding Altaras in her present day life in Berlin, Germany, with her husband and sons who wish her well, Schilling interviews Altaras while she drives from her home to the first important place on her journey to dispel the dybbuks. With each setting, more is uncovered as they dive through historical record and move farther back into her parents’ past. Altaras hopes to uncover the traumatic events of World War II and afterward as they embraced communism in Tito’s former Yugoslavia from which they were eventually exiled. We learn during the course of the quest about the unsettling issues that Altaras seeks to confront. How did the events of the war and her parents’ exile from their dedicated life as communists supporting Tito impact and deaden her mother’s emotional makeup? How did the events with the fascists and later the communists inspire both her dad and mom to remake themselves in a new image after exile?
These questions are partly answered as we learn of Altaras’ ancestry via Schilling’s interviews during their travels overland. Altaras liberally discusses the family history and Schilling edits Altaras’ voice overs with fascinating sepia toned historical pictures of her grandparents, aunts and uncles who lived and died during World War II. There are gaps in information for example, the reason why her uncle, one of her father’s brothers was killed and why her parents and specifically her Dad who was high up in the communist party eventually was exiled to Germany where both were forced to establish themselves, starting all over again in another culture.
Germany, her parents’ last permanent settlement, is the place that Altaras first visits. While her parents established their careers, Altaras was sent to boarding school at a young age. Schillings captures Altaras examining a monument to her father at Giessen University. Though Altaras is “matter-of-factly” proud of Jacob Altaras’ prominence as an inventor, doctor and radiology professor at the University, of her mother Thea’s prominence as an architect, and of their avid participation in the Jewish community where they helped to establish the synagogue where they worshiped, their rising stars came at a cost to her. She experienced a life apart from them and was the one dislocated from their love and family togetherness that was only realized during brief visits.
Schilling chooses to include super 8 clips of Adriana which her father, who was obsessed with pictures, took of her playing before she was sent away. Despite the happy looks and smiles on everyone’s faces in the childhood films, Altaras provides a deeper picture of the relationship between her mother and father when she reveals that she discovered super eight clips of beautiful blonde women, a few of which Schilling includes to illustrate Altaras’ humorous point. Interviewing a male friend of her Dad’s, Altaras validates her father’s secret affairs with many women which her mother may have known but never acknowledged. Through an interview with her Dad’s secretary, she learns of her parents caution downplaying their Jewish religion living in Giessen.
From Giessen, Altaras and Schilling continue back into the history of the Altara family to the various locales in this historical and current travel log ending with the remnants of the concentration camp on Rab Island. The beautiful island is now a tourist locale. With each stop the filmmaker chronicles Altaras’ revelations. Altaras interviews various individuals about the Jewish Partisans who fought with Tito during WWII, one of whom was her heroic Dad.
Her father told her stories of Tito whom he attended as his doctor. Supposedly, he repaired Tito’s glasses, a difficult task at the time. However, Altaras is never able to verify this fact. Indeed in every portrait and photograph she finds of Tito, she notes he never wore glasses. This irony becomes a theme in the documentary about the unreliability of perception, memory and myth when attempting to discover the truth about history, the accuracy about one’s parents’ identity and exploits. There is much that may be myopic illusion. Many “views” are diffuse and opaque. History dissolves into uncertainty as time passes.
Some of the most interesting information comes from Altaras’ interviews with historians who discuss the role of the Partisans during WWII. It is emphasized that Tito’s leadership of Partisan resistance was the most successful movement against the fascists in occupied Europe. Historians tell Altaras of the swelling numbers of Partisans from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. The Partisans liberated the Jews from the concentration camp at Rab Island and Hitler had a price on Tito’s head. Altaras makes it a point of pride in stating how the Croatian Jews were accepted in the movement and took a stand for themselves and fought back. It is a glorious moment in the historical record of Jews during WWII.
Schilling’s cinematic skill incorporating appropriate music and ongoing travel footage is acute. She fuses past and present film footage which continually engages. Inter-cutting close ups of aged family photos, chronicling the hair and dress of the period, and contrasting them with color super eight clips of the 1960s, distill how one time period evolved into another. Especially with regard to the early 20th century, this is a time that is being erased as the last survivors of WW II and the Holocaust die off. By attempting to capture the Altaras’ family history with the artifacts that have survived, Altaras and Schilling provide a brief glimpse into another facet of WWII in the Balkans and reveal that with churning history we can only get brief glimpses of light in the shadows of the past. Within these shadows are the answers that reveal the present. They are critical to understanding where we are now. Perhaps the dybbuks can haunt us less the more we learn about them. But making our own peace with them takes a very long time.
The film screens January 19th at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IJF8PQY] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0199380546] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=1841766755]