Re-Creating the Scene of the Crimes
Something happened to actress Kirsten Dunst while making Showtime’s Holocaust drama, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” in Lithuania last fall.
She grew up.
“I went to Lithuania more of a child,” explains the 16-year-old Dunst. “I have matured so much after this film. I learned so much about life and everything.”
Adapted by Robert J. Avrech from the popular novel by Jane Yolen, “Devil’s Arithmetic”’ centers on Hannah (Dunst), a spoiled Jewish teenager whose comfortable life in New Rochelle, N.Y. collides with a tragic period in her family’s past. Attending Seder at her aunt’s (Louise Fletcher) apartment, she’s suddenly thrust back in time to German-occupied Poland and soon finds herself a prisoner in a concentration camp. Brittany Murphy and Mimi Rogers, an executive director of the film, also star in the movie that was directed by Donna Deitch. Dustin Hoffman also serves as executive producer.
Dunst (“Interview With the Vampire”) had a vast knowledge of the Holocaust even before making “Devil’s Arithmetic,” which premieres Sunday on the cable network. “I was very interested in World War II and the Holocaust,” explains Dunst, who is a high school junior.
“It was the thing that interested me the most in history. I had read Jane Yolen’s book when I was 14. When they offered me the part, I said, ‘Yes, of course.”
But it was often terrifying for the young actress to reenact the horrors of the Holocaust. “It was really so scary,” she says. “It was so cold. We froze our butts off the whole time. It was, like, below zero, I think, when we were outside. We had to do these scenes where we had to take off our clothes and get into our prisoner uniforms.”
The first time she looked at herself in the mirror in her drab gray and black prison outfit, replete with a skull cap of shorn hair, Dunst didn’t recognize herself.
“My mom couldn’t be on the set,” she says. “She didn’t come one day on the set. The first time Showtime showed a little clip of it, she was, like, crying when she saw me. It was so sad.”
“She was a major trooper,” offers Rogers, who plays Hannah’s mother. “It was not an easy experience. The role is hard enough and it was a pretty brutal shooting experience.”
Deitch (“Desert Hearts”) went to Vilnius, Lithuania two months before her actors to supervise the building of the concentration camp set which was designed to resemble Auschwitz. The camp was built a few miles from one of the first sites of Jewish genocide--a series of large pits where 70,000 Jews were shot to death in 1941 by both German and Lithuanian soldiers.
The director made a conscious decision not to let her actors visit the set until they shot their first scene at the camp.
“I didn’t want them to see it or see it in progress or experience it in any way other than in character,” Deitch explains. “The first thing we shot there was pushing them out of the trucks. It was really incredible.”
Deitch shot all the town sequences during the first week of filming. “The moment when we started shooting in town it began to rain,” she says. “So when we got to the camp the first day, what had been a field of mud, was now a swamp. With every step you took, you sunk a foot and a half into mud.”
The actors were “knocked out,” reports Deitch, when they saw the camp.
To add to the authenticity, Deitch hired Lithuanian soldiers to play the Nazi soldiers. “They know how to jump out of the truck,” she says. “They know how to be real soldiers.”
“It was so hard not to be psychologically disturbed running off of those trucks and being pushed violently by people,” Dunst says.
There was also a communication problem because the extras only spoke Lithuanian.
“It was so hard to tell people ‘Can you move over a little bit?’ Everyone was so crammed [in the trucks] and no one spoke English. Just not being able to talk to anyone and you are crammed in these trucks in the dark. Some of those extras who were playing Nazis, they were jabbing us with guns and sometimes it would feel so real. That’s when I got hysterical. I couldn’t even control myself.”
Working conditions were less than ideal in the poor country. “They are not used to making movies there,” Deitch says. “In many cases, the actors were stacked four or five to a trailer. It was very difficult on them physically. That, of course, ran neck to neck with the psychological brutality of the subject matter.”
Dunst says she now appreciates everything she has and hopes teenagers who watch the movie will feel the same way.
“Kids today are so spoiled,” she says. “Everyone gets so much and no one really appreciate things.”
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).