Treasure – An Inspirational Transgenerational Story

As a teenager in the ‘90s, von Heinz read and loved Lily Brett’s Too Many Men – a novel given to her by
her mother, who was a fan of the author. Years later, von Heinz realized the novel had never been adapted into a screenplay.

In 2013, she reached out to Brett on Facebook – and, to her surprise, the author responded. After securing the rights to bring the 700-page book to the screen, she and John Quester, her screenwriting/producing partner and husband, got to work.

“I think we wrote 12 drafts,” von Heinz says, laughing. “Lily was a very close partner to us, so that was a great process.”

In the screenplay, von Heinz and Quester hone in on the delicate relationship between Ruth and her father, Edek. “Parental relationships are always complex, but with that first generation who survived the war and the Holocaust, it was even more complicated,” von Heinz says. “Few of them spoke about it – and not only the victims like Edek, it was the same in Germany with the perpetrators.”

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in TREASURE. Credit: Bleecker Street and FilmNation

Treasure centers on Ruth Rothwax, an American journalist in her mid-30s who yearns for a deeper understanding of her family’s past. For von Heinz, it was both a pleasure and a challenge to bring such a complex character from page to screen.

“Ruthie has issues, but I think most of us women have complicated relationships to ourselves and our feelings,” she says. “I like how she’s so clear, open and funny about it. She doesn’t need to hide her imperfections to be perfect.”

When casting Edek, von Heinz wanted an actor who, similarly to Dunham, could handle the comedic and dramatic aspects of the role. “I was captivated by it,” Fry says of the script. “I found it very moving and very touching, and also I had an element of connection, because my mother’s family came from central Europe, were Jewish, and unfortunately, also ended up in Auschwitz. So there was a lot to connect me with this.”

When Dunham, Fry and von Heinz finally met for a table read, it felt right. “They looked like father and daughter,” von Heinz said. “I could just watch them and see my movie come to life.”

A father-daughter road trip set in 1990s Poland, Treasure follows Ruth (Dunham), an American music journalist, and her father, Edek (Fry), a charmingly stubborn Holocaust survivor, on a journey to his homeland. While Ruth is eager to make sense of her family’s past, Edek embarks on the trip with his own agenda. This emotional, funny culture clash of two New Yorkers exploring post-socialist Poland is a powerful example of how reconnecting with family and the past can be an unexpected treasure.

As Treasure is seen by audiences spanning countries and generations, von Heinz hopes they will enjoy the performances – and, of course, the humor.

“It’s important to remember that the film is partly a comedy of a father and daughter’s inability to communicate – almost all great comedy is about people who can’t communicate with each other,” Fry notes.

“I think they are each other’s treasure – and reckoning with the past ultimately becomes a gift,” von Heinz says of Ruth and Edek. “Of course Edek thinks his past is horrible and something he would only want to protect his daughter from, but in a transgenerational trauma constellation, it is essential to talk about it, to dig it out and to uncover it.”

“When pain and abuse befalls a generation (whether in a mass tragedy or within nuclear families), the results ripple and ricochet in ways more powerful than we could ever understand,” Dunham says. “This film is about the many ways Ruth is still trapped in the pain that her father can never release. For us to live in a world that we would want to leave to our grandchildren, our actions – today – matter. By looking
back at our pasts to understand the evils of history, we can avoid repeating them ad infinitum, while also healing each other. That was the message I took from the script, and I’m still processing that message.”

Though Treasure tells a story in a specific time and place, von Heinz hopes viewers will see themselves in the characters and the themes which unite us all.

“I love stories that show how complicated we are, but that we still need love and connection, and it is possible to find it,” von Heinz says. “Every film I make is a love story, and I think Treasure definitely is.”
She adds, “If this film makes someone my age or younger think, ‘Oh, maybe I need to understand my father to better understand myself, I should call him…’ That would make me very happy.”

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in TREASURE. Credit: Bleecker Street and FilmNation

New York writer Lily Brett was born in the DP Camp of Feldafing, just a 20-minute car drive away from my hometown in the Southern German provinces of Bavaria. Here, thousands of Polish and Hungarian Jews were brought after they had been evacuated from the death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau by the US Army. It is also where Lily Brett’s parents met again after having been separated at the gates
of Auschwitz.

In 1998, Lily published her first novel Just Like That in Germany, and German readers were astonished. Here was a young woman writing about the Holocaust in a prose so light and humorous, that you did not know whether to cry or laugh out loud. Over the years, Lily Brett has built up a vast readership in not only Germany but also France and the UK.

The first time I read her work was when my mother gave me one of Lily’s books for my 16th birthday. She herself was, just like Lily, the daughter of a Jewish survivor and part of that “2nd generation” to which Lily had given a voice.

Our adaptation of Lily’s novel, Too Many Men, focuses on the “love story” between father and daughter, two individuals who could not be less alike. Holocaust survivor Edek Rothwax radiates strength, optimism and humanity and befriends everyone he meets. His daughter, and our female main protagonist, Ruth, however, carries with her the trauma of her parents and encounters Poland, the country of her family’s
death, with anger and bitterness

This bittersweet story is told in the light and comedic tonality of Lily’s novels without masking the deep pain our protagonists carry with them.

The year 1991, in which our film is set, directly follows a key moment in Polish history.

Immediately after the Iron Curtain fell, Jews from all over the world – especially from the USA – traveled to Eastern Europe to get to the bottom of their families’ legacy.

Ruth is one of them. The fact that her father imposes himself on her and accompanies her is nerve-wracking at first – until the journey finally gives her an understanding of her father that Ruth needs to truly understand herself; herself and the transgenerational trauma she carries within her.

I am overjoyed that Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry are playing Ruth and Edek Rothwax. Not only are they international stars, they also have a strong personal connection to the story: Both their families are Jewish and have their roots in Eastern Europe. Stephen has even experienced a journey similar to Ruth’s himself. Both are simply first-class actors who effortlessly combine tragedy with comedy.

Treasure is the third part of my Aftermath trilogy, which deals with the effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations.

– Julia von Heinz

Treasure marks the third film in von Heinz’s “Aftermath Trilogy” examining the legacy of Germany’s Nazi past, following 2013’s Hanna’s Journey and 2020’s And Tomorrow the Entire World. “Especially in Germany and in Europe, we hear people say things like ‘I can’t hear anything more about the Holocaust.’ But we tell stories to bring order to things, and the Holocaust was so massive that it will take generations to tell the stories of those affected – and it is necessary to remind each new generation that this cannot happen again.”

Von Heinz’s mother was born in 1946 – the same year as Lily Brett – and her father was Jewish in Germany. “He died when I was 13, and he never talked about what he went through,” she says. “I always felt that my family would’ve been different without that history.”

Julia von Heinz. Credit: Bleecker Street and FilmNation

“Julia is committed to truth – in the vein of great European naturalists, she refuses to ever go for the joke or for the tidy solution,” Dunham says. “She wants honesty, always, and demands it of herself as well. I knew watching her first film that I wanted to be around her and watch her process.”

Aside from their versatile backgrounds in comedy and drama, Dunham and Fry are both writers, which enhanced the collaborative spirit on the set. While von Heinz had a clear script and vision, she also allowed the actors to bring themselves to their roles, tweak lines if needed and share their perspectives.

“Julia knows what she wants, which is really important, but she’s also got such a clear sense of the description of the story that she can be free within that,” Fry said. “And that’s all you want from a director. I could trust her, and Lena could trust her. We could lean back into her arms in the knowledge that she wasn’t going to miss any of the opportunities the scene might offer.”

Julia von Heinz is one of Germany’s most accomplished film directors. Her films and series have been huge successes at the German box office and have been screened at film festivals worldwide.
Julia von Heinz earned her doctorate at the Film University Konrad Wolf in Babelsberg and teaches directing at the University of Television and Film in Munich.
In 2012, she founded the production company Kings&Queens Filmproduktion with her husband and co-writer, John Quester. Since 2018, she has also been a shareholder of the production company Seven Elephants, which she founded with directors David Wnendt and Erik Schmitt, along with producer Fabian Gasmia.

In 2007, von Heinz won the German Film Award for Best Children’s and Youth Film with her debut, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. Her latest film, AND TOMORROW THE ENTIRE WORLD, competed at the 77th Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Film at the 2021 German Film Awards.
TREASURE is the third part of von Heinz’s Aftermath Trilogy, which deals with the repercussions of the Holocaust in Germany and globally.