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April 7, 2011

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1st feature film on Jews in Shanghai

WHEN Branko Lustig was only a child, he and his family were imprisoned for two years in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

Most family members perished in camps throughout Europe, but the young Croation survived, though he weighed only 66 pounds (30 kilos) on the day of liberation. His mother too survived and they were later reunited.

He went on to become a prominent Croation film producer, the man behind two Oscar-winning Best Picture films, "Schindler's List" (1993) and "Gladiator" (2000). Both were also great commercial successes.

Now Lustig, at age 79, has made his first trip to Shanghai and is teaming up with local film makers to produce the first feature about Jews sheltering in the "Noah's Ark" city to escape the Nazis in World War II.

Shanghai accepted more than 30,000 Jews and many other refugees without visas, at a time when other countries refused to take them in. Jews lived in what was called "Little Vienna" (Hongkou District) that had synagogues, libraries, coffee shops, pastry shops, theaters, newspapers and everything else a small community would need.

"I was impressed by the history of the city," says Lustig. "In the concentration camp, the food was bad and Germans were killing them (Jews), but here in Shanghai it was different. It was a life here."

The new film, with a working title "The Melanie Violin," is budgeted at US$35-40 million and will be filmed in Shanghai by the end of this year and released worldwide next year.

It is adapted from a novel by Chinese-American writer He Ning (also the scriptwriter) about a Jewish violinist who flees to Shanghai from Europe, taking with him the violin that belonged to his late wife Melanie.

He falls in love with a Shanghainese woman and during the Japanese occupation becomes friends with a Japanese soldier who loves music.

Lustig says he prefers the title "The Last Station," implying that Shanghai was the last resort for persecuted people.

The cast has not been chosen, but Lustig says he is considering a Chinese-American director who can give the film a feeling of what was happening in Shanghai from 1935 to 1945.

"The movie is also expected to include big scenes to get the feeling how big Shanghai is," he adds.

While much has been written about the period, there has been no feature film focusing on the Jewish and emigre community in Shanghai. An animated film was released last year.

Lustig was honored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in 2009 for his commitment to Holocaust education and commemoration.

He jokes that he has a big influence on directors, noting that over 50 years he has given them nice apartments and they have given him nice work.

Lustig expects great visuals, high artistic values and emotional power, as well as box-office appeal.

"Schindler's List," about Oskar Schindler who rescued Jews during the war, was a worldwide success, grossing more than US$320 million.

Lustig says his only criterion is "excellence."

"We will probably put in a little bit of action and elements," he says. "You know, when you cook, you can put everything together."

He expects "The Melanie Violin" to also include scenes from the protagonist's life in Europe.

"We will leave the audience impressed by what has happened to the violin before the musician came to China and how his wife died," Lustig reveals.

Last year the Shanghai Animation Film Studio produced the animated feature "A Jewish Girl in Shanghai," which depicts the friendship between local children and a Jewish girl, despite differences in language and culture.

For author-scriptwriter He Ning, "The Melanie Violin" is more than a movie, it's a memorial to Shanghai's friendship with the Jewish community.

"This period of history is still unknown to many Westerners," says He. "There are still some Jewish descendants living in Shanghai and many refugees felt deep gratitude to the city, calling themselves 'Shanghailanders'."

Over the years, many Jews who lived in Shanghai or whose parents lived in Shanghai, have returned to the city to track down old memories.

Lustig said in an early interview with CNC on March 30, "When I left the camp, I promised to myself that I will make a movie to talk about us. We will never forget. That's the reason why I make it."

And time is short, he says.

"Because you see, we will die very soon, many people already. When we die, nobody will be left to tell those true stories about the camp," he concludes. "That's also why we came here, slowly people will die, and nobody will believe there were people here, 30,000 people in these buildings, during the war, and the Chinese people helped them to survive. That's very important to say."

Documentary 'Shanghai Salvation'

Chinese documentary film makers are also focusing on China's and Shanghai's role in providing shelter to Jewish refugees during World War II.

A three-part documentary series "Shanghai Salvation" will air next month on the News Channel ("Shanghai Stories") and the International Channel Shanghai ("China Untapped").

It is produced by Shanghai Media Group and took 17 years to make. Since 1994, film crews have been traveling across three continents, visiting countries, including Germany, France, the United States and Canada, to research and collect stories of surviving refugees who were sheltered in Shanghai.

They conducted hundreds of interviews about the Holocaust and war years, containing stories never before told about slaughter and salvation.

During World War II, most European countries and the United States refused to permit large-scale immigration of Jewish refugees. Shanghai was an exception.

In Vienna, Chinese Consul General He Fengshan was rushing to issue visas to European Jews. He came to be known as the "Chinese Schindler." However, his story is little known. Still, many others went to China without visas.

The series describes not only how Jews fled to Shanghai but also explores how they adapted and built new lives in Shanghai. It tells how local Chinese, themselves deprived during the Japanese occupation, extended their hand to help Jewish refugees.

? "Shanghai Stories"

Every Saturday, 4:05pm, News Channel (in Chinese)

? "China Untapped"

Every Sunday, 6:30pm, ICS (in English)


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