Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry connect with their Jewish heritage in new film ‘Treasure’

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American writer, director and actress Lena Dunham, left, and British actor and comedian Stephen Fry pose for photographers at the premiere for the film 'Treasure' during the International Film Festival, Berlinale, in Berlin Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 74th edition of the festival will run until Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 at the German capital. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

BERLIN – Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham play a convincing father and daughter in German director Julia von Heinz’ first English-language movie, “Treasure." Set in post-communist Poland, the comedy-drama had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival over the weekend.

Dunham joked in an interview that when she sent her mother a photo after her first read-through with Fry, her mother replied, “I think we now know who your real father is.”

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Dunham said she was full of nerves meeting Fry: “Meeting your heroes is a complicated thing, and it turned out to be better than I could have dreamed."

The film shows the pair on a road trip to Poland to retrace family history. Fry plays Holocaust survivor Edek, who reluctantly accompanies his daughter Ruth, a New York journalist. He confronts painful memories and shares parts of his past that he had kept buried for years.

The story is based on Lily Brett’s book “Too Many Men.”

Fry learned Polish for the role. Both actors said they connected with their Jewish heritage.

“When I read the script, I could hear my grandfather’s voice, and it became more so the further we got in,” Fry said. “It never occurred to me growing up that there could be an opportunity to re-investigate the story in that kind of way.”

“I had the same experience as Stephen," Dunham said. "I heard echoes of my great-grandmother Mildred, and the not just the stories that we told in our family but the stories that we didn’t tell.”

Dunham’s family came from Poland, close to where the film was shot. Her great-grandmother lost nine siblings at the beginning of the Holocaust in 1941, something she only learned through her investigations into family history.

Her character, Ruth, suffers the unsaid aftermath of her parent’s experiences. It was this trauma that von Heinz wanted to explore.

“If one person in a family experiences war or terror or trauma and will not talk about it, maybe to protect their children, maybe to protect themselves, they will feel it” the director said. "It will travel through the generations until someone is ready to feel it and to confront the parents and to have a dialogue.”

Fry said it is understandable that a survivor with a daughter growing up in New York would not want the child to know “the absolute depths of depravity that he would have seen every day as a survivor in Auschwitz.”

He added: “She’s in America. She’s free. This is the land of wonder and splendor and happiness and indeed, happy Jews."

Filming inside Auschwitz is prohibited, so von Heinz got special permission to recreate the barracks on a football field just outside the fence. She felt the scenes there were integral to Fry’s portrayal of Edek.

“This place does something to you that you cannot say, but you feel it,” she said.

The film premieres in Berlin at a time when antisemitism is on the rise and support for the far right is growing, particularly in Germany.

When the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel took place on Oct. 7, all the cast were in touch by text, von Heinz said. That led to the decision to finish the film more quickly than planned “and to have it here at Berlinale, because it’s the very moment for a film like that.”

But Dunham said it was the wider implications of the story that she wanted to tell.

“It’s not just antisemitism that’s on the rise, it’s Islamophobia. It’s racism in America. It’s about fear of difference," she said. "And I think it’s really, really important for us to share the story not just for Jewish people, but to kind of talk about what happens generationally when people are isolated or subjected to violence or subjected to that kind of hateful scrutiny.”

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