Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry bring humor to Holocaust survivor film 'Treasure': 'Laughter is a magnificently important part of surviving'

Lena Dunham knows she’s typically a chatty person. That wasn’t always the case on the set of her new tragicomic movie, Treasure.

“Usually I have too many words, but I just didn’t have any,” she told Yahoo Entertainment about filming on location at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. “Being there ... you have a temporary experience of what the people there had, which is a complete removal of your voice.

“There’s a town around there. Life continues because life continues for people everywhere, but it’s eerie,” she added.

In Treasure, Dunham stars as Ruth, a recently divorced journalist who travels from New York to Poland with her Holocaust survivor father, Edek (Stephen Fry). Edek jovially sabotages their planned tour of the village that he was born in and forced by Nazis to leave by wandering off, flirting with women and singing at bars. He questions why Ruth wants to revisit the loss of his home and his suffering at Auschwitz in the first place.

Dunham is best known for the projects she has written and starred in herself, like the ever-popular HBO series Girls. Though she didn’t write Treasure, her starring role and recent discovery that one of her relatives survived the Holocaust deepened her own connection to the film. Dunham said her character Ruth, determined to confront trauma endured by her family members while struggling with separate personal issues, is “deeply relatable.”

Lena Dunham chats with Stephen Fry in a Polish hotel in their film Treasure.
Lena Dunham chats with Stephen Fry in a Polish hotel in Treasure. (Bleecker Street Media/Courtesy of Everett Collection) (Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection)

“Hopefully in [portraying Ruth] I can shed light on the concept of transgenerational trauma that would welcome not just Jewish people, but anyone who came from a family who kept secrets, where darkness is passed from one generation to another,” she said.

German writer-director Julia von Heinz adapted the screenplay from a novel by Lily Brett with help from the author herself. Von Heinz told Yahoo Entertainment it took her 10 years to bring the film together.

“I had such a strong motivation to make this film that I never lost energy,” she said. Growing up in Germany, she had extensive education about the Holocaust — through facts, numbers and “horrific documentaries.”

“We wouldn’t dare connect it with humor. No teacher would allow themselves to make a joke,” she said. “That made it become so static, we didn’t really feel the horror of the Holocaust ... so I wanted to transport the humor and emotion of [Brett’s book] to the movie.”

Fry told Yahoo Entertainment that he knows it is every actor’s dream to be in a “blockbuster or marvelous Hollywood tentpole feature,” but bringing von Heinz’s art to life was a “privilege.”

Fry’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. The actor said that much like his character Edek, his grandfather had a “slightly overdone zest for life ... hugging and making friends with strangers and embarrassing me.”

In preparing for the role, Fry thought deeply about what it meant to survive a death camp — and about what it would mean to revisit that trauma so many years after it occurred, like his character does.

“On the surface you think they’re the lucky ones ... but to actually survive ... I suspect it was impossible without abandoning some of your humanity. You had to look out for yourself,” he said. “For a time, all you see is the worst of what humans are capable of. ... You see every day and the next without hope of the day ever ending ... if by some miracle you make it out to New York ... and smell freedom on every street ... why would you ever want to go back there to that nightmare?”

Dunham poses with Fry outdoors in a Polish village.
Dunham and Fry in a Polish village in Treasure. (Bleecker Street Media/Courtesy of Everett Collection) (Bleecker Street Media / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Fry said he knows it comes across as “pretentious” when actors immerse themselves in roles, but to him that’s the most effective way to embody the character — even in this instance.

“The only way to do it properly is to imagine what it’s really like to be that person, not just say the lines,” he said. “We have to think of where they come from, and in this case, it’s from the darkest place imaginable.”

Even in abject darkness, to Fry, there is humor. He wanted that to shine through in Treasure.

“If I saw a film about a serious subject and there was no humor in it, it would be like seeing a film in which people had no nose,” he said. “Laughter is a magnificently important part of surviving.”

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