Directed by Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock, The One That Got Away takes you on a beautiful, whirl-wind journey through Thomas Beck's life as he revisits times marked by war, pain, joy, and rekindled romance. The film does not fall into the trap of being a collection of simple musings from a delightful man. Instead, it delivers a powerful, sometimes frightening portrait that shows how the human spirit and a positive outlook can truly endure anything. This is a film that makes you forget you're watching a documentary, and makes you feel like you're with Thomas in person, maybe having a drink late at night in an otherwise empty bar, as he regales you with a life story you will never forget.
How happy was I get to the attention of the very busy Lindsay Pollock's keyboard for a mailterview? Very.
Celeste Ramos: The amount of serendipity that seems to surround documentary film does not cease to amaze me. You learned about Thomas’ story via your mom as you were looking for a new project, and Edith’s husband passed away around the time that Thomas discovered she was still alive and living in Australia. Was it the timing of all these events that eventually pulled you over the edge into deciding to make this project, or was there something about Thomas and/or Edith’s stories that appealed to you as a creator?
Lindsay Pollock: From the moment we began, the project developed in unexpected ways and serendipity played a role throughout. In the first place, as you say, we were lucky that my mum met Thomas and put us in touch with him. We heard the skeletal outline of his tale, and thought there could be a documentary in it. Tommy was living in Spain at that time and we decided to visit him there.
Before traveling we diligently researched the Holocaust, reading Elie Weisel and watching powerful documentaries like Shoah. Knowing that many survivors have carried hurt from the Holocaust throughout their lives, we were preparing to meet somebody who carried a lot of trauma. On arriving at the airport in Spain however, we were greeted by a beaming, genial man who embraced us both in a hug and began to regale us with ribald anecdotes and jokes. An hour or so later we were sitting in the sunshine, furnished with vodkas and Tommy was cheerfully rolling a joint.
Tommy spent his life with his back turned to the dark memories of his childhood. He was the archetypal rolling stone for decades, and my personal feeling is that his constant motion was a reaction to the abrupt and brutal ending of his childhood. He cherishes the memories of his grandparents and provincial upbringing but didn't for a moment try to recreate it in his later life. When the war ended he traveled to Israel and then on - living in America, Germany, Japan, Lebanon, and a hundred other places.
We began the film knowing only Thomas, and the plan was to retrace his childhood journey. In his home village, our researcher went ahead of us to plan the shoot. In the one shop, he was asking about the Ripkas (Tommy's original family name) and his boyhood best friend Pista was there to overhear. Pista himself said that he had dreamed of Tommy just a few nights before. Serendipity was definitely on our side.
CR: How did Thomas find out that Edith was still alive?
LP: Tommy rediscovered Edith at almost exactly the moment we began planning the film. A mutual friend from their childhood, who knew Edith still, had been searching for Tommy for some years. The advent of the internet helped finally bring them together.
Edith, amazingly, lived around the corner from Tommy's son in Melbourne. It's entirely possible that over the years, the two had unwittingly walked by one another in the street.
Her husband was still alive, then, and when Tommy went to visit, they met for just ten minutes. They were entirely different personalities. Edith was an upright pillar of the Jewish community and Tommy a rather brash and irreverent presence in her ordered home. Edith still talks in wondering tones about his outrageous white slacks - apparently a fashion no-no in her world! They had nothing in common other than their long distant past. Not inclined ever to speak again, they parted with no sense of their common fate.
Some months later, while researching the route for our film, Tommy contacted Edith to ask if she knew where the internment camp stood in which they met. This is the first of their emails that you hear in the film. Edith's stand had sadly passed away some months before, and she was very hurt. Tommy wished her well and graciously offered her any support. From that, their friendship began to grow - by email, as our filming progressed through Hungary and Slovakia.
CR: What was it like to be there as Thomas walked you through the tough memories and related places – his separation from his mom, the murder of the doctor at the fountain, etc?
LP: Tommy makes optimism a cornerstone of his personality. It's a natural part of his personality, but also a choice, and a practise. You cannot change the past so don't let it define your present or your future. As he says in the film - the moment you're born, you start dying. So what's the point of life? Feel good. He doesn't often allow bad memories or regrets to intrude on his studied philosophy of enlightened hedonism!
But of course, when he is pushed to confront unavoidably sad memories, it is all the more melancholy to see the light go out of his eyes. We persuaded him of the value of recording his story - on the proviso that the "message" of the film be that you shouldn't let bad experiences define your life. To feel a victim ever after would be to capitulate to the Nazis. But part of that journey had to be an acknowledgement of the brutal things that happened to him. We could only stand back and let him express it in his own way, but I did feel guilty - pressing him to revisit memories that he had put to the back of his mind for many, many years.
CR: What kind of reactions has the film received overall? Have people mentioned anything regarding Thomas’ time with the Hungarian Nazi captain? I found myself asking in my mind the questions you asked him in the film when he revealed that he’d been assisting/helping/spending time with a Nazi captain. Do you think he was ever in a certain state of denial?
LP: We have been present for public screenings at the Australian Jewish Film Festival and at the Big Sky festival in Montana. At both screenings we found that hearts were warmed by the unlikely love story between Tommy and Edith. But I was concerned beforehand about the reaction of survivors and children of survivors (there were members of both categories in the audiences at both festivals). The Holocaust - naturally, obviously - is a highly emotive topic and Tommy does not treat the subject with the usual reverence. Far from the mantra of 'never forget', for Tommy the watch-word is move on. Even more acute is the scene you picked up on in which he recalls working for the Nazi captain.
As Tommy himself points out, he was merely trying to survive. At first, he did not know how dangerous a customer he was dealing with. Once enlisted and in the barracks, there was no obvious means of escape. Tommy was also a pragmatist; as long as he wasn't found out, he was safer in the barracks than outside in the fighting.
Tommy's story ultimately illuminates the moral relativity of people's actions. The captain knew he had damned himself by his deeds, and felt ashamed. Possibly even concerned about the retribution awaiting him in the next life. Tommy's story ultimately allows his character a small degree of redemption. However, I would not be surprised if some people criticised his association with the Captain, and that would be perfectly within their right.
CR: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that funding was among your biggest hurdles. What other challenges were there in the making of the film that you’re now proud to have overcome?
LP: It's a long and multifaceted process making a film like this one. There are the obvious artistic challenges, but just as hard are the logistical ones. We had to research Tommy's story from scratch, tracing locations from nothing more than his boyhood memories after six decades. The whole project began with a big map spread out in front of an open fire. Tommy poured vodkas, pored over the map and we took furious notes. Credit must go to our wonderful research & production assistants Laszlo and Geza, who helped us organise accommodation and transport. Really, the hard work was in organisation and admin!
It's tough, pushing on with a multi-country project like this, funding it from your own pocket, and believing it will be worthwhile as one year leads into the next, and the next. When HBO finally picked us up, it was a feeling of vindication, but also relief - that at least we were not alone any longer.
CR: What did you take away from making the film, personally or professionally?
LP: I took away no great revelatory epiphany from the film. For me, the gift I take from the whole project is the friendship of Tommy and Edith. I feel proud that we helped reunite them, and I'm happy to say that we see them regularly. They are true friends.
CR: What projects do you have coming up?
LP: We are presently working out what to do next. I'd like to do some smaller - faster - projects. The One That Got Away was only supposed to be a year in the making - but then Edith met Tommy, and their courtship gradually unfolded... So no matter where you start, you never know where a doc shoot will take you or how long it will take to arrive!
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Visit The One That Got Away for more on the film, including stills and background info, and more on the original soundtrack created by the great band New Build. You can catch the film on HBO EU if you're a subscriber to the HBO GO screening service. Stay tuned for further updates on upcoming festival appearances.
My thanks again to Lindsay and Sam, and to Mike Gualdoni for introducing us!