It is hard to think of many more luckless or traumatic fates than being a Jewish child in Nazi Germany. But imagine if you were also deaf. In the documentary Ingelore, first time director Frank Stiefel relates the story of his mother, Ingelore Herz Honigstein, who was born without the ability to hear to Jewish parents in Kuppenheim, Germany, in 1924. The film is narrated by Ingelore herself, who heartbreakingly describes how she struggled to overcome her disability, how she was raped by two German soldiers, and how she finally escaped to America — a climactic chapter that would be rejected by any blockbuster producer worth their salt for being too fantastical. After the jump, Frank Stiefel talks about his unflinching but uplifting film, which debuts on HBO 2 at 6:15 p.m. ET this Sunday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like for you personally, having to walk your mother through her story?
FRANK STIEFEL: There were pieces of it that were really hard. We shot the interview in January of ’08 and then we went to Germany in April. In between, I had to listen to that interview over and over again to be able to imagine how we were going to recreate the events in Germany. I had to listen to her description of that rape over and over again. That was hard. I don’t think I ever sat through a complete telling of it. I would get up and get something to drink. It sort of was a war between the stuff I needed to do in order to make it a film and being the child of this person.
Was this a story you knew from an early age?
I probably heard my family history the way we all hear our family histories, in sort of a disjointed way. You’re a child and you hear one story and then a year later you hear a second story. Did the second story happen before the first story? And who gives a s—, anyway? You know, it happened in 1940! Were there dinosaurs? You’re completely removed from the power of that stuff, because you’re young and you’ve got the empathy of a gnat. The good fortune I had was that my mother was invited to lecture at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which was the first time I heard all of those stories as a narrative. That’s when I decided to make a film.
Did you have concerns about taking your mother back to Germany for the first time since she had escaped?
She wanted to do it. She had no idea what her reaction would be, but I think it was okay for her because she wasn’t victimized by what had happened. She said it last night actually. She said, “I will never forget it. But I don’t feel as if I’m a victim of what happened.”
It’s fitting that Ingelore is being screened on Mother’s Day.
I thought that was really a lovely gesture. And it’s been a great experience for me beyond the film. For me to hang out with my mother at a point when we both have time has been a real gift.
I was talking to one of my colleagues about the documentary. She said — and she wasn’t joking or being glib — “How come Spielberg hasn’t gotten his hands on this?” Has anybody approached you about turning your mother’s story into a feature?
No. There wasn’t much of a plan in making this film. I was going to give it to my kids and that was the end of the story. Only, at the end of the editing process I thought, “Man, this is pretty good. I wonder if it is good?” I submitted it to the International Documentary Association and they had a competition and chose it as one the films that year. From there, it took off. I retired from being an executive producer at [production company] Radical Media and traveled with the film to festivals around the world. Then HBO bought it. But there was no plan. I don’t have an agent. It hasn’t been flogged by anybody to anyone. I guess I should probably take it more seriously in terms of that.
You can check out the trailer for Ingelore below.