Filmmaker Maia Wechsler discusses how she met "the sisters," their reactions to the film and what the women are doing now.
Why did you make this film?
In 1987, as special correspondent for U.S. News and World Report in the Paris bureau, I covered the opening days of France's first trial of a Nazi for crimes against humanity. It was the trial of the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, "the Butcher of Lyons." I was looking for people to tell me their stories from that period. Someone suggested I meet Jacqueline, which I did. Jacqueline opened an entirely new chapter for me – the role of women in the Resistance, and Christian women moreover. I was so drawn to Jacqueline because here was a woman who could have done nothing, but instead risked her life.
Jacqueline and I spent two afternoons together, as she told me her story. I wrote a magazine article about her for a Paris city monthly called Passion. I vowed to myself that one day I would make a film about her and her friends.
In 1993, living in New York and having started working in documentaries, I knew that if I didn't move on this idea, I would lose the opportunity. The women were getting older and would no longer be able to participate. So, I went to France, looked up Jacqueline, with whom I hadn't spoken in several years. I told her I was going to visit what remained of Ravensbruck concentration camp and wanted to make a film about her. She was walking with a cane at the time. I didn't dare ask her to accompany me. The next day she asked, almost timidly, if she could go with me. It was, of course, a dream come true. Our trip was moving beyond words and our relationship was solidified. That year, I shot an interview with her in New York and then I had a baby. Three years later and pregnant again, I went to France and met many of her friends to choose the women for the film. The choice became obvious when I observed the emotional connection between these four. A year later, in 1997, I began shooting. By 2000, I was editing, but only after raising $30,000 though the mail – contributions from friends and extended family – to get me to the fine cut.
I lived in France for six years, having started as a student and returning as a journalist for five years. I loved the country for so many reasons. But my need to grapple with the period of the Nazi occupation – and how it fit into the larger context of the Holocaust – intensified my feelings of connection to the country. When people in France see the film (it was broadcast on France 2) they wonder why it took an American to make it. I don't know the answer and can only say that spending time with these extraordinary women was a great honor.
Can you give us an update on each of the women profiled in your film?
Sadly, Geneviève de Gaulle Anthonioz died on Valentine’s Day 2002. She was 81 years old. Germaine Tillion is now 96 years old and continues to write and be interviewed for television and the press. Anise Postel-Vinay still devotes many hours to documenting various aspects of the Holocaust. She was last working on securing a publisher for an out-of-print book on medical ethics and Nazi doctors for use in medical schools in France. Jacqueline Pery continues to speak about her war experiences to countless students and other groups. She is also president of the Association of Resistance Networks in France (Association des Reseaux d’action de la France Combattante).
Did the women in your film readily agree to talk about such a difficult and painful subject, or was it difficult to convince them to participate?
Because I was introduced and accompanied by Jacqueline, the women did not hesitate to talk to me. Throughout the filming, however, my relationship with the four women evolved and became more intimate. Anise Postel-Vinay was certainly the most daunting to me. She is a formidable, guarded woman whom I found intimidating. I was surprised and, indeed, moved when she opened up in unexpected ways during my interview with her at her home. While she was able to talk about the death of Germaine’s mother, Madame Tillion, however, she would not speak about the death of her own sister at the hands of the Nazis.
What were the women’s reactions to the film?
I don’t know if any of the women were convinced they would ever see a finished film after all the interviewing and time we spent together. But they all did see the film and were moved by it. After viewing it for the first time, Jacqueline was relatively silent. I think there was simply too much for her to take in – just seeing herself on camera retelling her story was overwhelming. But after she had seen it several times, she was able to sort her feelings out. She and I have presented the film together many times in France and the United States, from Avignon to Indiana, and it is always so rewarding to field the audiences questions together. Anise is far more reticent than Jacqueline and did not attend the premiere screening at the International Women’s Film Festival in Creteil, France. She did contact me, however, to tell me that friends and colleagues had seen the film and were deeply moved. After the recent broadcast in France, she wrote me again to tell me the same. Jacqueline said people recognized her on the street and paid homage.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I wanted to preserve and share these stories of courage and commitment for people everywhere.
What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?
There were several stories from the camp that so beautifully illustrated the connection between the women. One story in particular was about a doll that Jacqueline made for Geneviève when Geneviève was held hostage on Himmler’s orders in the camp prison. Jacqueline made the doll with bits of stolen fabric, risking her life in the effort. It was a delicate and elegant “marquise,” as Geneviève called it. Jacqueline managed to have the doll delivered to Geneviève by a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the prison. The doll was a lifeline for Geneviève, who was near death from exhaustion at the time of her imprisonment. Geneviève cherished the doll her entire life and pulled it out during our interview.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The subject matter, absolutely.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”