The call to remember Shoah, sharing a past dispassionately so we’re better armed to confront the present, resonate in bittersweet and personal documentary “NINA & IRENA”

Last Updated: June 11, 2024By Tags: ,

If a filmmaker or publicist contacts me regarding my reviews, it’s usually to complain—with the unhappy missive-composers often forgetting that the job of a critic is to, well, critique and not to make friends or earn pats on the back.  One does not undertake this type of writing to be popular, or even liked.  (I could point to my school years as evidence of this, but never mind.)  If we’re lucky, a critic might see his or her name on publicity materials accompanied by a laudatory blurb about a film.  Such moments of ego-massage aside, we critics typically write into a void, with neither approbation or vehemence directed back at us.  The silence of an uncaring world can be deafening.

However, on very rare occasion, a grateful filmmaker reaches out to say thank you.  This happens so infrequently that at first one might even assume it was done in error.  But, thankfully, that was not the case during that surreal summer of 2020, when I watched an extraordinarily candid documentary called “White Noise” from a young documentarian named Daniel Lombroso, which played at that year’s covid-ed, entirely online AFI DOCS festival.  Lombroso took his camera to follow self-righteous, unapologetic white supremacists Richard Spencer and Lauren Southern, whose bile about what they viewed as their race’s demise drew them both fans and critics.  

Lombroso found me on Twitter and thanked me for the cheering review—a definite highlight of a year in which my wedding was canceled by the pandemic, our lockdown experience included next-door-neighbors viciously turning other neighbors against us (long story), and my wife and I were kept far away from friends and family.  I named “White Noise” to my best of 2020 list and asked Lombroso to ensure his subsequent films found their way to me.

True to his word, he alerted me to his ongoing work, including “American Scar,” “Prince of Luna Park” and “Greywater.”  His talents caught the notice of the New Yorker magazine, which hired him as a staff filmmaker.  Our lively correspondence was to be supplemented by an in-person meeting in New York in March 2022 that was sidelined only when Lombroso caught the coronavirus.  (Despite his good intentions, my wife and I nonetheless found the virus on our own not long thereafter.)  

This fall Lombroso got in touch once again, enthusiastic about his latest documentary, “Nina & Irena,” made under the aegis of the New Yorker.  The short film—which is a hot contender for a best short doc Oscar nod—sees Lombroso interview his grandmother Nina Gottlieb, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, but her sister Irena was never seen again, almost certainly disappeared by Hitler’s vile machines.  Unlike his previous work, Lombroso came out from behind the camera this time, as much the figure of a younger generation paying witness to the few surviving witnesses of the Holocaust as it is the story about an artist and his grandmother.  

Lombroso is still young, with many films before him.  It also doesn’t hurt that “Nina & Irena” has gotten the seal of approval from no less than Errol Morris.  

Lombroso agreed to sit for a virtual video interview recently to discuss “Nina & Irena.”  It was the first time we had ever met, surreally bringing our relationship of nearly four years essentially full-circle.  Lombroso, who lives in Brooklyn, spoke to me from Nina’s home on Long Island, the same setting he interviews her for in his film.

Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, appears below.

Daniel Lombroso

You wrote in your New Yorker essay that Nina never really spoke much about her experiences in Poland during World War II.  I’m curious, because she seems to keep a rather even keel when discussing her harrowing experiences, do you think your filmmaking brought back any trauma for your grandmother?

When I called her for the first time to say I wanted to do the film, she said, “There’s no story here.”  And I said, “Grandma, c’mon you’re almost 90, I know something happened.  You were born in Poland, you survived the Holocaust.”  [She repeated], “There’s no story here.”  When I really asked again, she said, “OK, fine you can come over.”  

I had a vague sense that her sister existed.  On the piano, which is actually right here [in Nina’s home], there are pictures of the life she rebuilt in America.  Two kids, six grandkids, five great-grandkids.  And in the middle is a small cutout picture in black and white of this beautiful young woman.  I had never asked who that was.  So I said “I want to focus on that person.  I want to know about your sister.”  She said, “There’s no story; she disappeared 80 years ago.”  

For me that became the story: the way we bury a past and keep going—and rebuild [after] the complexity of living through and surviving something as difficult as the Holocaust.  Her kind of wrestling with that memory and wrestling with me became the story, and I think it allowed us to make a Holocaust film that’s a bit untraditional and unexpected.

How far away from Nina do you live?

I live in Brooklyn, and she’s on Long Island.  On a good day it’s forty-five minutes; yesterday it was three hours to get here.  

Dear God.


This is the first time, in my recollection, that you came out from behind the camera to put yourself into the documentary.  Why did you make that particular decision?

You know, the film is about many things, but one of them is the intimate bond between a grandparent and a grandchild.  I never had any intention of putting myself into the film, and then someone came to me and said…if that’s your intention, to show your bond, then you can’t just be this nameless, faceless documentarian off-camera.  You have to be right there with her.  

You know [vaguely] that I’m the one making the film, but you don’t know that I’ve spent years making films on extremism.  You don’t know that much about me, but you know just enough to put yourself in that situation.  That was my intention.  So I also framed myself in closeup, so you feel the closeness, [as if you were] talking to a grandparent.  In the film I’m not a particularly complex character.  [I’m similar to] any guilty grandson who shows up not often enough to visit their aging grandparent.  And I think when I walk in the door and hug her [in the film], anyone is supposed to be able to [project]  themselves onto that scene and say “Oh, that’s me.” 

When she says at the end, “You should come and visit me more often, and not just for the movie,” everyone’s been guilted by a grandparent.  It’s a universal thing.  

What has the experience been like for you and your grandmother attending screenings together?  

We’re spending more quality time together than ever before.  I’m at her house now.  I see her probably once a week, and I used to see her maybe once every month and a half or two months.

It’s just been an amazing run: two dozen festivals, a lot of educational events and schools to teach younger people about the Holocaust.  We played at DCTV [in New York].  We’ve played festivals since February.  We played at a Holocaust museum in New York, which was a sold-out crowd, and then recently at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A.  My grandmother got on a plane for maybe the first time in six years to fly out for that event.

Ken Burns told me that, even at his level, it’s still difficult to secure funding to make a documentary.  Even though your film was made under the banner of the New Yorker, which is part of Condé Nast, were you in a similar situation?  

I would say the money is not there [but] just enough is there for someone who is a crafty filmmaker who can do everything to get by.  My feature “White Noise” I shot more or less myself.  I spent three years embedded with white supremacists all over the U.S. and Europe, Russia, Canada—that was really one-man-band filmmaking.  Only in post-production did I pay for an editor, a composer and a mixer.  

The way I’ve come up as a filmmaker is to be totally self-sufficient and to understand what the journalism requires cinematically—that it has to be beautiful—but also the cinema has to be journalistic.  I’m able to walk that balance.  I have a deep appreciation for long-form reporting and journalism, and that’s imbued all of my work.  But you can’t just be a journalist with a camera, you have to understand what makes an image beautiful and funny and the rest.

I think this film is much more cinematically sophisticated than “White Noise” and the other films I’ve worked on.  Part of that is growing as a filmmaker, and the other part is just working with a team for the first time.  I was able to get a little bit more money and call in a bunch of favors.  I was able to hire an amazing cinematographer, Vittoria Campaner, who shot the film.  

And we wanted everything to be very controlled and photographic.  Everything is natural light, but we shot on the ALEXA Mini [camera] for the first time.  We had an actual system with someone pulling focus as an assistant [and using] all prime lenses, Cooke primes.  You see the difference.  It just feels sophisticated in a way that my previous work didn’t.  

Every dollar counts.  We’re sleeping on couches, we stayed at my grandmother’s—in fact I slept on this couch that I’m sitting on right now.  But I had the braintrust of an amazing magazine behind me to give me notes and support.

How hands-on or hands-off was the New Yorker with “Nina & Irena”?

They were involved every step of the way.  [New Yorker editor] David Remnick has a very select meeting called “The Ideas Meeting.”  If you’re lucky enough to get invited, it’s almost like doing standup comedy.  “OK, Daniel, your turn!”  You have to give three ideas.  

So around two years ago, it dawned on me that the generation that survived the Holocaust was disappearing very quickly.  My grandmother was 7 when the war started; she’s 91 now.  And she’s the youngest of [people] who would retain what had happened.  When I was called into this intimidating meeting, everyone sweating bullets, I gave my first probably shitty idea.  Then I [pitched]: “The generation that survived is disappearing, and my grandmother, who lost 25 family members, has never told anyone what happened.  She’s never talked in any detail about what happened to her sister, who she was very close to, or her story in general.  And I think this is sort of a final opportunity for the New Yorker, and a magazine like it, to do a project of commemoration to honor that generation.”

David was very encouraging.  He just said, basically, “Kid, have at it!  See what you can do.”  And you know when David Remnick says something, you use that as leverage.  

Oh yeah.

I said to my boss, “David is excited about this film.”  So then she was excited.  

It’s like any creative pursuit: You have to kind of find a way to keep the momentum and keep the energy.  Then I used that little bit of momentum to call my grandmother and say, “I know you didn’t want to tell me before, but David Remnick is excited, and my boss is excited.  And I have a team that I’m putting together, and they’re excited.  Will you do it?” 

Finally she said, “All right, I’ll do it.”  

And then, on top of that, to have the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, Errol Morris, and have him endorse the film, that was a moment I’ll never forget.

How on earth did that come to pass?

It’s all about the hard work.  I had a screening in Boston [the day] after Halloween.  I was out at a friend’s place till not too late, [but I had] three hours of sleep, a little too much to drink. I take a 5 a.m. Amtrak to Boston, I do my Boston Globe screening, then I look at the program and see that Errol Morris is screening “Pigeon Tunnel” after [my film].  I love Errol; “Gates of Heaven” was one of the films that inspired me to become a filmmaker.  So you know what, I’m going to watch the film and I’m going to shoot my shot.  

I go up to him and said, “Hey, Errol, I’m a huge fan.  I made a film.  Will you watch it?”  He says, “Sure, kid, sure, whatever.”  I’m schmoozing, I hang around and I…get his email.  Afterwards I go home and [think] I’m going to see if he wants to be an executive producer.  So I sent him the film, and I said, “Errol, I adore your work.  Will you ever executive produce [my film] and help champion it in this next phase?”  

No answer.  We [then] get a really nice Deadline article I sent to him.  He said, “Kid, love the film, call me!”  He says, “Your grandmother is fucking incredible!  One of the most extraordinary characters I’ve ever seen on screen,” which is crazy.  And he insisted on being a part of it.  Now he’s championing the film going into Oscar voting.

Unfortunately some people still either claim the Holocaust never happened or it was not nearly as bad as reported.  How can we maintain an accurate historical record?

I think the starting point is [that] it’s not distant history—this is less than 80 years ago.  I think because the images are in black and white people are able to assume it was a long time ago.  We’re talking about maybe two or three generations.  And people who survived it are still living.  

A lot of the words have been “cheapened.”  We hear words like “concentration camp” and “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.”  We have to be vigilant whenever that happens, but the Holocaust was the complete destruction of a group of people. Two out of three Jews of Europe were killed—6 [million] out of 9 million in Poland, 90 percent of the Jews in Poland were killed.  Ninety percent of Jewish children were killed.  Twenty-five of my grandmother’s family members—every aunt, uncle and cousin, all four of her grandparents.  So the state-sponsored extermination of a people is a distinct historical tragedy with not a lot of parallels.

There are a few that exist, and by studying them, we learn things about human nature, that humans have this capacity to do bad things.  And it’s not to say that it can only happen to the Jews; it can happen to other people too and continues to happen.  But it’s something that we have to take seriously and not downplay.  That part of humanity never disappears and will never disappear.  So I think you could say never again for the Jews, and never again for anyone.  I don’t know why that has become somehow a political point.  

I’ll just go there: In this context [of the Israel-Hamas war], my grandmother is not from Israel, she’s an American Jew.  She’s been [to Israel] once.  She’s very secular; she has no connection to the country.  And I’m inundated with messages saying, “We’ve heard enough about the Holocaust.  Stop using your victim complex to perpetuate a genocide against the Palestinians.”  

First of all, my grandmother isn’t perpetuating anything; she lives on Long Island.  Second of all, we have to continue to study this and we can take whatever lessons we want from it.  Oct. 7 was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.  Twelve hundred innocent civilians killed, not soldiers, not settlers—innocent people.  A lot of people didn’t even take a second to mourn; they just spur into action—people who I respected.  

And then on the other side, now we’re seeing a brutal response for Palestinians in Gaza.  So many are dying.  I feel a lot of sympathy for them.  And you know all of these things can exist in the same sentence.  My grandmother, I think at the most powerful part of the film, shows sympathy for a German officer who is being burned alive and spit on by Czech bystanders.  Her moral compass [dictates] that no one deserves to go through this, not even the perpetrators of the genocide.  

I think we have to realize that every life matters, and every death is a tragedy, and we should listen to people when they’re in pain.  It shouldn’t be that hard.  

Are you hopeful art can help with that process?

There’s been a lot of great art that’s been made about the Holocaust [but] I don’t know how much it’s helped.  I think “Schindler’s List” did a lot of good in the ’90s.  The ’90s were a time of optimism in general: the end of the Cold War, the Oslo Accords in Israel with the Palestintians.  When I was in elementary school, “Schindler’s List” came out, and I remember people would come up to me and say “I’m so sorry your family went through that.”  And I said, “You don’t have to apologize.  I grew up here.  It’s fine.”

I think there was this moment of reckoning for the first time [in the years] after the Holocaust.  Now we’re talking about seventy or eighty years after the Holocaust and people are forgetting again.  I’m not of the view that the Holocaust is happening again or will happen again, but people prefer to ignore bad things.  In Europe, the far right is rising again.  In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, a proud xenophobe, just won [national election].  In Germany the AfD is popular, and in France [Marine] Le Pen will be president in our lifetimes.  

So the farther you get away from historical moments, the more people tend to forget them, willfully or not—I would say often willfully.

Let’s try to be optimistic then.  Let’s say you are nominated for the short documentary Oscar—and you win!  There’s that great moment of celebration, but then it’s gone.  Even movies that receive awards sometimes become little footnotes in film history.  What do you hope the legacy will be then for “Nina & Irena”?

I think Walter Benjamin or Andre Bazin, one of them wrote about how what was amazing about photography is that it liberates you from your spiritual death.  Someone could have painted my grandmother, but it was still subjective—it [would be] the painter’s image of my grandmother Nina.  But now I have four hours of testimony and a 22-minute film that is who she is and the life she lived.  I’ll be able to show that to my family forever, and I hope people come back and want to hear her lesson.

It’s been meaningful in a way I’ve never experienced in my career.  Something about her message, her humor, her humanism and her voice in this moment resonates in a way I never expected.  People feel very moved and touched by the film.  She’s inundated with emails from around the world.  People are writing her, so it’s just been an amazing, heartwarming experience.  

She doesn’t have a lot of hope in humanity, but she had hope on a personal level to …rebuild an amazing, vibrant life, to meet her future husband one year [after the war] as a refugee on Coney Island.  [She had] two kids, taking them to the World’s Fair, witnessing history, [and now has] six grandkids and five great-grandkids, one of whom now made a film about her.  

I think my grandmother is just an amazing person and an amazing voice—and one that you don’t hear much of anymore.  She is so tough and resilient and she doesn’t dwell on the negative; she keeps moving forward.  So more than anything, I hope that she lives on through this film.  When she isn’t around for me, she’ll be around on screen, and she’ll be on screen for other people.  That’s really my only wish.

I want her to live on, and I think when I have kids I want them to know her, and when I have grandkids I want them to know her.