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Psychic Scars and Something Wild: A Conversation with Dramatist, Filmmaker, and Holocaust Survivor Jack Garfein

Written by Eli F. on March 20, 2017 

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Believe me, I love talking about it all, especially in relation to art, because I think that’s what makes me interested in art. I’m not an actively religious person – I went to two years of Jewish day school – but, you know, I’ve never been good about ritual. And yet, I’m incredibly fascinated with the topics of God, and spirit, and I’m incredibly drawn to those themes in art.

Oh, yes. You have to, I mean, you can’t go without that. You can’t go without that and without love. Those are the two things that you have to find. I mean, look at the sun – you need more than that. There it is, a certain distance, certain number of feet… Every little leaf, every little worm, every little life, is it all by chance? It’s all by accident?

Once, in my acting class, somebody said, “Mr. Garfein, acting is pretending!” I said, yes, well you know, I knew this young woman once. She was very much in love with this boy. And he left – she was uncertain, and she felt suspicious that he was going to leave her, that he was involved with somebody else, and so on. At night, she would hold the pillow next to her and break down, crying and wanting him, and experience his presence in bed. And in the morning she would wake up with tears in her eyes, and her mother said, “What’s the matter?” And she would tell her mother, “I can’t stand it! I miss him so much, he is with me all the time!” And the mother said, “Oh, you’re pretending!”

Meaning, I’m trying to make them see, acting is part of a living experience that every human being has. Like people have voices, people have talent for music, people have talent for writing, and nature also gives human beings the talent to be able to relive emotional experiences. To different degrees, some have it at a certain level, some have it at others. But it’s part of life. It’s not something outside of it. It’s what people, unfortunately, don’t realize. They’ve been given the wrong ideas.

Well, for my last few questions about Something Wild – first may be the most challenging one. So, speaking of changing reception to the film: I suspect, just from observing the way people talk and the way discussions are happening in media channels today, that if it were released today to a general audience, the film would be hugely controversial – not for the rape scene, but for the ending. I can imagine that there would be some very impassioned responses and critiques in the media, to the effect that the ending romanticizes abuse, or that it exonerates a violently misogynistic and oppressive character in the form of Mike. I’d be curious to hear from you how you might respond to that kind of a critique, and how you interpret the ending.

Well, first of all, I’m sorry to say, but they’re bringing cliché conventional ideas to the table. They’re not realizing that someone like Mike didn’t do anything deliberately. That even the way Ralph Meeker performs him – you know he’s innocent. What happened was, he got drunk because he was so overwhelmed by what was going on; he had saved this woman, in a sense, because she was going to die and he also, himself, is in that state. And he sees the potential in this woman, and doesn’t have any idea that he did anything to hurt her. And he thinks that she doesn’t trust him and tries for no reason to go out and maybe kill herself. And because of his life, because he too has been rejected, because of whatever his experience has been, whatever he’s been through, when he finds her, that’s why he proposes marriage and wants to have a life with her. Because he feels, just like what Henry Miller said: “When that guy says to her, ‘You’re my last chance,’ Jack, that’s me! That’s me, Jack!” In a sense, he’s saying to her, not “I want to rape you, or seduce you,” but “You’re my last chance at having a life. I never thought I would ever come across someone with whom I was emotionally connected like that.”

And so, I think that’s a kind of a judgment, others saying, “I think it should be this and it should be that.” Like, judging life on a conventional basis, this is what it’s supposed to be. Somebody even said once, “Why doesn’t she break the window and get out?” What’s she gonna do? Go to the police? They’re going to help her? She’s gonna be able to live? She’s gonna be able to relate to things? No, she’s gone through a complete transformation.

I think that what is difficult for people to understand is the fact that it’s not Stockholm syndrome, that’s not what it’s about. He’s not locking her up because of that. Mike knows one thing: first of all that he’s totally unaware of what he did, that he got drunk, because finally he rescued a woman with whom he felt a connection, and he couldn’t really take that. But if she leaves, where is she going to go? Is he going to let her go back to the five and ten-cent store? Let her go back to the bridge? She feels totally isolated from the people, from the city, because they have not related to the experience she has. And so, in a way he thinks he is protecting her, and that somehow she doesn’t see him as a guy who loves her and tries to protect her, because of the incident that occurred. So he thinks that keeping her there is out of love, and out of a desire to protect her. In Stockholm syndrome the kidnapper doesn’t let the victim out, she’s freed – it’s not the same thing. But here, when she reveals to him what has happened – what he tried to do to her, and the fact that she’s responsible for the eye– then he realizes that she cannot have faith in him, she just can’t believe in him, because what he did wrecked that. And so he leaves the door open. He says, “Okay.”

She leaves. She experiences. She thinks she’s going to go home or somewhere, only to find herself in the spot in front of the bridge at that place, and she suddenly realizes, intuitively she was brought back to that place, the only place that recognizes her emotionally and accepts what’s happened.

I know this experience in my own life. I mean, I finally met a woman, whom I’m now engaged to marry, and where does she come from? The Soviet Union. As a kid, there was a terrible experience in her life. At the age of three, two and a half, she noticed that there was a fight going on between her mother and father. Her father didn’t get up to fight, he was in bed. And the mother went and poured a bucket of hot water over his head. And the neighbors came, and the kid was screaming, and she was there. And they took her out, and it was her grandmother who knew what she had to deal with, and tried to bring her up to confidence.

In a way, her experience is an Auschwitz experience – in some ways worse! Because in my case, I was thirteen years old, and it was terrible – this break from my mother, and all that. And not just terrible, but I wished she dropped dead, or that I would die, and that would really get her. But I explained to Natalya, I said, “You were two and a half, you didn’t even understand! At least I knew what was going on! But for you, what? The person you love most, the person you were with – he’s screaming in pain, and for what? There was no comprehension; I don’t know how you survived it. I don’t know how you got through it,” I said. “In some ways you were lucky because your grandmother really understood that she had to take you and give you confidence and build everything up for you, and so on.”

And so I’m saying that, this notion is something people would like to believe: “Oh, yeah, I can go back and I’ll be the same person as I was before.” It’s not true. It’s not true. Either you suppress it, and you live with suppression, or you accept it.

She never realized. We met, she was attracted to me, I was attracted to her, we never realized that something else, here, brought us together, that nobody else could grasp on a certain level. That, yes, she had to find an Auschwitz survivor, and I had to find someone from the Soviet Union who went through something even worse.

Now I’m telling you, if I had seen for example what Elie Wiesel saw… I came on the same night, to Auschwitz, that Elie Wiesel came! And he said that what he saw was the Nazis throwing children into a pit of fire. Well all I can tell you is, if I had seen my sister thrown into the fire like that, I wouldn’t have made it. I would have gone and done myself in. So you can see that it’s not the literal experience that each person has, but it’s something [psychological].

For example, after that incident in her childhood, every time Natalya saw a man with a red beard, she would say, “Pick me up! I wanna touch your beard!” And her mother would say, “Stop that! Don’t do that!” But she couldn’t stop her. Because she loved that man [her father], she experienced that, you understand. She was a baby, you know, she didn’t understand consequences, [she was] so pure! Because the love at that point is so pure, particularly with a father. That’s why, for women, the love of the father is so important, because the love is there without sex. That’s why it’s so important that it never happen that the father misuses that. That gives them faith that men are capable of something beyond sex.

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But do you think, though, that it’s wrong that Mike imprisons Mary Anne against her will, and essentially commits an act of violence against her in that way?

No, I think that he tries to protect her from herself, just like how she tried to jump off the bridge. It’s after the incident with the eye that she starts to want to get out, before that she didn’t want to get out. But he doesn’t know that he did anything, he just thinks she’s going to go out there and go through the same thing because of the state she was in. Nothing else has changed in her life. She’s not going to go home and deal with her mother and her father on that level, or the school, or anything like that. And also, he feels for the first time a love for another human being, you know, that will give him a life. He doesn’t just want to seduce her, that’s why he offers marriage.

And people try immediately to go with the conventional idea that he imprisons her. He doesn’t imprison her; he doesn’t know why, but she’s his chance to have a life. He’s not interested in just going to bed with her. And the thing about the drunkenness is, he’s so overwhelmed because he thought that this would never happen to him, for there to ever be someone like this. He got drunk without even thinking about it, and he explains to her the next day: “I don’t know what happened,” he doesn’t even remember what went on.

But do you think that, even under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a person can ever really do something like that totally by accident? Doesn’t it reflect something in their nature?

Oh, I believe that you can get so drunk that… maybe subconsciously, it was like wanting her. But I absolutely believe that in his case, he was so lonely and so alone, and finally there was this break where he has this woman. Even under normal circumstances, the man is always afraid that she’ll be lost, or she’ll leave, or find somebody else, or something like that. And for him, for the first time in his life, he finds somebody on his own level, in terms of a connection. And she trusts him! And she knows what happened, but he doesn’t know. And I don’t know how, if she got out of there, she could live with that idea.

So in the end, you believe that the right thing happened for those characters?

Oh! They’re lucky. It took me a lifetime to find the woman that I could connect with in my life, even though I’m much older than she is. I try to tell her that – and her mother at one point even threatened suicide because of my age, but she felt, no no, this was the first time that, on a certain level which she didn’t even understand at first, she connected with someone and felt, “Oh no, I can’t lose this.” And I, too, I felt that. I even began to speak Slavic again with her, which I never did before, and she speaks Yiddish in some way. And I’m just amazed at the things that happen. What the consequences will be, [who knows]… all you know is, this is what’s impelling you. In the film, Mary Anne is pregnant, they’re going to have a child. And I’m sure that she’s never going to find anybody who’s going to be able to relate to her the way this man can relate to her. She’s not going to be looking, even. And he is lucky to find a woman like that.

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Dovetailing again off of the film’s immensely contemporary feel: you have a particularly fascinating life story. There are few living people in Hollywood, or America for that matter, who have borne witness to the scope of history – both the world’s and the industry’s – that you have experienced in your lifetime. And given this, I’m incredibly curious to get just a little bit of your perspective on the state of the world today: where cinema is at, where theater is at, what’s happening politically right now in America and Europe, what you think about the advancement of technology and its impact on life and on art.

Well, let’s take one thing at a time: Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hollywood tries to flatter people. They want to make them feel that everything, in the end, works out well, and if not you’re responsible for the things that went wrong. And also that you should forget about anything bad that happened to you, you know, don’t think about it. Which is very bad.

It happened to me. When I was liberated in Bergen-Belsen, I weighed 48 pounds, 23 kilos. I couldn’t walk anymore. I knew I had about three days to live. And then the British liberated me, and they wanted to put me through disinfection but I wouldn’t give up my clothes. My hair was thick with all sorts of stuff; I hadn’t been bathed in who knows how long. They brought a British officer who spoke Yiddish, and he assured me that he would take my clothes and he would have them cleaned and I would have them back. So I agreed, I gave them the clothes, and then they cleaned me up, they cut my hair, and then they put me in a room by myself. And that afternoon the British officer showed up with my clean clothes.

I won’t go into what happened after, but later I came to America, I was in a foster home, and finally the Jewish Childcare Association, which took care of me, put me into a very nice home on Central Park West with a doctor and his wife. They were nice people. Jewish Childcare only took care of you up to the age of 18, so at 18 I was on my own. I packed my bags, and got a job at the Beacon Hotel as a package boy, and as I was leaving I couldn’t find the clothes from the camp. I turned to the woman, and I said, “Where are my clothes from the camp?” “Oh, Jack, I didn’t want you to think about that, I didn’t want you to relate to that experience, so I threw them in the garbage.”

There you have the attitude of America, in a sense, in a very specific way. The fact that they couldn’t take that step; that only made me feel more alone. I think in Hollywood, they try only to make the audience feel good. You know, that this is all good, that justice has been done. So, except for great directors, every once in a while – it’s not Hollywood, but Bergman, people like that. John Ford, in some ways. So that’s Hollywood.

Politically, I went through a very bad experience, three days after Trump was elected. In a sense, I didn’t think I had these emotions anymore. I never dealt with them, because I grew up, I went on. But now I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt the same feelings I had when I was eight years old, in 1939, when Hitler came to power in Germany. Not because of Hitler coming to power, but picking up the uncertainty of my parents, who didn’t know where they were going to go, how they were going to protect themselves, what was going to happen to them. And at the time I didn’t know what it was. Outside I heard the fascists screaming, “Jews out! Czechs out!” It was in Slovakia, joining into an alliance with Hitler. Not the Czechs, but the Slovaks. And suddenly back in the present I had to talk to myself, I had to say, “Wait a minute. It’s not the same. There is still a strength in this country, something that has seen this country through.” But for the first time, I felt the insecurity that I felt as a kid during the war.

And then what worried me were two things. What worried me, basically, is the fact that these people who are there with Trump, I don’t see them ever giving up power. I mean, they have weapons, they’ll legalize this, they’ll legalize that. I was afraid about the next election, any future election, that it may take who knows how long. The other fear was when I saw that Trump was lying, and obviously lying, I suddenly felt, “Jesus, if the President’s lying, suppose something happened in the world and he said, ‘Oh, this is what’s happening, we have to attack, we have to do this or that.’ How can I believe him?” How can I believe it’s true? I said, “I feel absolutely lost.” I feel lost, but I also feel that there is something in this country that I don’t think can be destroyed completely. But it might take a hundred years to get back to [how we were], I don’t know.

On technology: Well.. it has positive aspects, for example if you’re doing research. You put something inside of yourself. It’s wonderful that it’s there, and the fact that you can be in touch with things. But, I feel that today we’re surrounded by so much technology – by cellphones, televisions, emails, SMS, all this – that what happens is, we’re not getting images and ideas from other people. The most important thing is direct connection with other human beings, and that’s being lost quite a bit.

I tell people, “Please, go to the theater. Even bad theater is important!” It’s important because human beings are doing it. It’s not something that’s sent to you. And I tell them, “Read books, because when you read books, you create your own images.” And the danger I see today, is – and they see it politically now, too – that not only are they sending you false images, and false information, but that you have to connect yourself to human beings individually, it’s the only way today. And to literature, and to art, where it reveals an aspect of life – the revelation of life.

But the fact is, yes it can be used well, but it’s dangerous. And you can see even in this election, politically, that it’s dangerous. And look what they sell – and again, it’s somebody’s image, fine. But as long as something else is also there: theater, real literature, dealing with the complexity of human nature and life and the mystery of it. Something that reveals, that gives you some revelation of what you are about. And there’s no end to that. But if technology takes over all of that, then it’s dangerous.

I was going to say earlier that I think Something Wild in particular may appeal to a lot of younger people, people of my generation; partly I think because of technology, we experience a sort of emotional alienation and social alienation that is kind of historically new. Partly due to technology, but also partly history, economics, there’s a whole bunch of factors leading to, you know, what people talk about as the “postmodern condition”. But it’s sort of, the way that we’re defining reality and connecting to each other has become very different compared to your generation.

Also, when people use technology, [information is] erased, nothing remains sometimes about what our communication has been and on what level. And I think that’s also a danger. I don’t know which way we’re going and what can be done, but… You know, the Jews have a saying: “If the fish stinks, it stinks from the head.”

Never heard that one…

So with anything like this, the head people, the people who are in charge of this… like, if you see the television shows that are being done, most of them are lies about human nature. But the people who do it, and approve it, part of it is their life, that’s what they live, and this is what they think the world wants to see and they impart that. And I would say that the people in charge today, too, are responsible for that. They stand for profit, not for revelation.

Something Wild is now available on The Criterion Collection and streaming on FilmStruck through March 31.

We would like to thank Courtney Ott, Bingham Bryant and everyone else at The Criterion Collection for making this interview happen, and of course Jack Garfein and Lori Styler for their participation. 

Eli F. is a freelance writer based out of New Jersey. You can contact him by email.

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