As though to underscore the criticism of Poland’s new restrictive and hypocritical Holocaust Blame Bill, The emotionally charged animated documentary The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm animated by Jeff Scher and directed by Amy Schatz premiered on HBO on Saturday, If you missed it, it is available on both HBO GO and HBO On Demand. The story begins when 10-year-old Elliott asks his 90-year-old great-grandfather, Jack, about the number tattooed on his arm. He sparks an intimate conversation about Jack’s life that spans happy memories of childhood in Poland, the loss of his family, surviving Auschwitz and finding a new life in America. As the survivors of the Nazi crimes pass away, docs like this are increasingly more necessary.
Scher is a painter who makes experimental films, and an experimental filmmaker who paints. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshhorn Museum, and has been screened at the Guggenheim Museum, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at many film festivals including opening night at the New York Film Festival. Additionally, he has created commissioned work for HBO, HBO Family, PBS, the Sundance Channel as well as numerous music videos for artists including Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Scher teaches graduate courses at MFA Design/Designer as Author + Entrepreneur at the School of Visual Arts and at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He created a blog for The New York Times called “The Animated Life” for which he made more than 30 short videos.
I spoke with Scher about his film below, but there is also a documentary on the doc here.
Obviously, the holocaust digs deep into your consciousness. But what prompted you to do this documentary?
It was a commission, but a welcome one. It felt very good to be working on a film with this message in the current political climate. I have MSNBC on in the studio all day, so while reports of ICE rounding up people blared on the tube I was drawing Nazis rounding up Jews. I was also animating Hitler during one of Trump’s speeches. The parallels were ominous but made the work urgent.
So much has been done regarding this slice of history; what makes your approach unique? Or at least different for you?
This film is geared to children so it walks a fine line between telling the story honestly, one man’s story as told to his great grandson, and not going too deeply into the grotesque horrors. We wanted to inform the next generation, but not give them nightmares.
I’ve read much holocaust literature aimed at children. It’s as, if not more, poignant (and horrifying) than that aimed at adults. What do you see as the difference?
Innocence makes the event more poignant. The cruelty is amplified by the helplessness of the children.
How do you feel about holocaust depictions? Do you concur with those that argue there is too much, that it numbs the mind?
Yes, and there is a dehumanization that happens when we see the grainy black and white horrors. By animating it, but in a completely realistic way via rotoscope, we were able to keep the focus on the people in the story. The re-interpretation of the imagery into the watercolor world humanizes the characters and gives the viewer a way to identify with the victims as people, not flickering ghosts of silver nitrate.
What do you hope your audience will take away from you film?
Never again. These were real people, not numbers.