Written by Kathleen LaPenta
Screenshot from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLYInHnIvNE
Edith Bruck is a poet, author and director who is a survivor of the Holocaust. Born May 3, 1931 as Edith Steinschreiber in Tiszabèrcel, a poor, rural village in northeastern Hungary, she has been living and working in Italy since arriving there in 1954. The circumstances of Bruck’s exceptional life have shaped her vast body of literary and cinematic works and, in her constant witness to the events of the Holocaust, she has insisted that writing is remembering and that is “not a choice” but a matter of survival (Webster 1993). Bruck’s prodigious career spans literature, theater, and cinema while her persona has unfolded on both sides of the camera: she has been the subject of several films and oral histories, such as for the Shoah Foundation – dedicated to the memory of victims of the Holocaust – and for ORMETE – dedicated to the memory of theater in twentieth century Italy, and she has worked as an actress, screenwriter, and director. She is a founder, with Dacia Maraini, Lù Leone, Francesca Pansa Maricla Boggio, Giuliana Morandini, Annabella Ceriani, Rita Picchi and Saviana Scalfi, of Teatro della Maddalena, the feminist theater established in Rome in 1973.
When Bruck was twelve years old, she was deported to Auschwitz with her parents, brothers and one sister. The family was separated. Bruck’s mother and brothers were murdered at Auschwitz. Her father was murdered at Dachau. During the course of 1944-1945, Edith and her sister, Eliz, were transported from Auschwitz to Dachau, then to Christianstadt and finally to Bergen-Belsen before being liberated by Allied Forces in 1945. After the war, she returned to Hungary and was reunited with her surviving family members, including two sisters and a brother, but she soon emigrated to Czechoslovakia to live with her sister Margo. In Czechoslovakia Edith became pregnant by a cousin and was forced to have an abortion. At sixteen years of age, Bruck married Milan Grün and they moved with Margo’s family to Israel in 1948. Edith and divorced Milan one year later, when she was seventeen. She married Dany Roth, who abused her and whom she soon divorced. She married a third time, and although she eventually divorced again she kept the last name of her third husband. After briefly living with her sister in Argentina, in 1954 Bruck immigrated to Italy, where she met and married her fourth husband, Nelo Risi, with whom she collaborated on many projects. The couple remained together until his death in 2015. Since her deportation from Hungary in 1944, Bruck has returned to her homeland twice: once in 1962 and again in 1983 as the subject of László B. Révész’s documentary, A látogátás [The Visit]. In several interviews she has condemned the circumstances of Hungary’s Holocaust denial that have shaped her relationship to her home country and that are manifested in Révész’s state-commissioned documentary (Pető).
1958 marks Bruck’s entry into the cinema industry and her debut as an Italian writer. Her only acting role, a cameo, is in Mario Monicelli’s film, I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), where she plays a young woman who fights with her friend. Bruck’s memoir, Chi ti ama così (Who Loves You Like This), published in 1958, tells the story of the Steinschreiber family’s deportation and separation, of Edith and her sister’s transfer through multiple concentration camps, and of Edith’s life in the immediate aftermath of the war. Bruck has often noted that she began writing her autobiography in Hungarian in 1945 but that the notebook was lost when she moved to Czechoslovakia. When she finally published it in Italian, Gillo Pontecorvo attended the reading and invited her to be a consultant for his film, Kapò, about women prisoners and the sexual and social hierarchies in the Nazi concentration camps. Bruck travelled to Belgrade, where she worked for one month on location with the actress Susan Strasberg. Her contribution, however, remains unacknowledged in the film’s closing credits. In subsequent interviews, Bruck has noted that difficulties working with Pontecorvo led to her early departure from the set and has acknowledged that her 1979 novel, Transit, reconstructs a fictional version of the experience (Balma 2014 84).
Several of Bruck’s literary works have been adapted for film. The first of these, Andremo in città (We will go to the city, 1966), was directed by Risi, and is based on the short story she published in 1962 in the collection of the same title. Although the setting for the literary piece is that of a rural village in Hungary, in a 2009 interview Risi explained that both Hungary and Poland rejected the film and so it was shot and subsequently set in Yugoslavia (Persinsala 2009). The screenplay is the result of a collaboration between Bruck, Risi, Jerry Stawinski, and Cesare Zavattini. Although both literary and cinematic versions tell the story of the rural and impoverished circumstances in which an older sister, Lenka, cares for her blind brother, Miscia, during the Nazi occupation, the storyline of the film departs from the literary narrative in several notable ways. In the short story, the father, Rasco, is deported and then dies in a concentration camp, while the mother dies from distress over the father’s disappearance. In the film, Rasco escapes from the concentration camp and returns to hide in the village, where he eventually sacrifices his life for his daughter, Lenka’s love interest. Millicent Marcus has noted that Risi’s film was a “star vehicle” for the budding actress, Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) and that the “infatuated camerawork” belies its realist claims (Marcus 2007 45). Risi’s own commentary bears witness to his formation as a documentarian, calling it a “cronaca ripensata a vent’anni di distanza” (“chronicle re-elaborated twenty years’ later”) (Faldini and Fofi, cited in the blog post for the Museo Nazionale del Cinema).
More recently, Bruck co-wrote with Risi and the director Roberto Faenza the screenplay for the 2014 full-length feature Anita B. Antia B is an adaptation of her fictional autobiographical 2009 novel Quanta stella c’è nel cielo (How many stars are in the sky). In the story Anita, a Hungarian Jewish teenager, who is also a Holocaust survivor, goes to live with her Aunt Monika in Czechoslovakia after returning from Auschwitz. With no citizenship papers, Anita feels like a prisoner again in the small town in which Monika, her husband Aron, their baby Roby, and Aron’s brother Eli live. Anita gets pregnant after becoming entangled in a love affair with Eli and, when Eli tries to force her to have an abortion, the doctor fakes the procedure. In the end, Anita escapes the grip of Eli’s control and flees to Palestine to give birth to her child.
The short story, “Silvia,” one of eleven comprising Andremo in città, was adapted for television by Giandomenico Giagni in 1969 for RAI. Balma also notes that “Ghiaccio sul fiume” (“Ice on the river”) and “Il cavallo” (“The Horse”) were adapted from the collection. The author’s 1974 collection, Due stanze vuote (Two Empty Rooms) was published with a foreword by Primo Levi, and from it, “La traversata” (“The Crossing”) was adapted for TV by Risi in 1976. Produced by RAIUno, La traversata uses flashback and flash forward to reconstruct Leila’s (Eleonora Giorgi) journey from Naples to Israel (Balma 2014 124).
In addition to adaptations of her penned literary works, Bruck has also collaborated on several screenplays. For Fotografando Patrizia (Photographing Patrizia, 1984), she worked with the director Salvatore Samperi and fellow writer Riccardo Ghione on the story of an incestuous relationship between orphaned siblings in Chioggia. By day Patrizia’s relationship with her younger teenage brother, Emilio, 16, is normative. At 25 years old, Patrizia takes on the traditional role of older sister, pushing Emilio to make something of himself. By night, however, Patrizia climbs into bed with Emilio and she recounts to him all of her sexual exploits. Emilio reacts by pushing Patrizia away and into the arms of a photographer, Arrigo, whom she promises to marry. The night of the wedding, Patrizia does not consummate the marriage with Arrigo but instead makes love with Emilio. In 1991, also with Risi Bruck wrote the script for Per odio e per amore (For Love and Hate). The made-for-TV film tells the story of Aida, a cashier from Emilia who falls in love with Saro, from Palermo. Aida, played by Serena Grandi, eventually follows Saro back to Palermo, where she discovers the secrets of his sordid past and involvement with the mafia.
The debut of Edith Bruck’s first feature-length film took place at the 1979 International Venice Film Festival, with the release of Improvviso (Sudden), for which she also wrote the screenplay. The story is based on the 1969 stabbing and death of a schoolteacher, named Gianna Po Bianella, by Claudio Fantino, a socially and emotionally disturbed teenage boy, after Bianella refused his sexual advances while the two were travelling on a train heading to Turin. Filmed with a “simple” cinematic style, the narrative unfolds in parallel sequences that reconstruct the troubled psychological and sexual formation of Michele, the protagonist, alongside scenes of his suffering and decompensation in prison (Balma 86). When the director announced her intentions to make a film for RAI about the murder, a legal battle ensued. Bruck responded to the public outcry by defending her artistic choices and by highlighting her interest in exploring Fantino’s social marginalization as well as the institutions that had worked to reinforce it (Balma 2014 98). Improvviso also aired on RAIDue in 1983 with an introduction by Tullio Kezich.
Quale Sardegna? (Which Sardinia?), Bruck’s second film commissioned by RAI for the series Lettera da…, was also released in 1983. It stars the English actor David Lewis and the German actress, Karin Mai. With photography by Dario Di Palma, the film juxtaposes the modern lives of two young tourists with the picturesque and archaic cultural practices of the Sardinia. David and Karin, two foreigners who meet upon arriving in Cagliari, travel together as they encounter the island’s ancient cultural traditions, breathtaking natural landscapes and difficult, unpolished modern industrial spaces (La Repubblica 1984). Bruck’s film is unique in that there is no on-screen dialogue, and Balma notes that this may have been partly due to the fact that Lewis and Mai did not speak Italian. The cinematic imagery is accompanied by Lewis’ voiceover narration and by dialogue dubbed in Italian during the editing process (Balma 2014 106). Quale Sardegna? further constructs the imaginary of Sardinia by drawing on D.H. Lawrence well-known 1921 travel narrative about his trip to the island with his wife, entitled The Sea and Sardinia. A passage from Lawrence’s poem, “Terra Nuova” serves as the opening epigraph for the film and we first hear David reading The Sea and Sardinia while waiting to board the ferry. As the soundtrack plays traditional music sung by Maria Carta, the film closes with the same shot of David reading, thus revealing that both his encounter with Karin and their journey through the island have been imaginary.
Un altare per la madre (An altar for the mother, 1986), which Bruck directed and co-wrote with Piero Murgia, is adapted from Ferdinando Camon’s 1978 eponymous novel. The themes of poverty and of life in a rural setting are at the center of Bruck’s stark realist cinematic style that treats the story of a middle-aged son who returns to the small village where he is from to attend his mother’s funeral. During his stay, the son relives the memories of his childhood, recalling his mother’s courage and strength amidst the ruin and destitution of the years following World War II, while his father erects an altar to her at the intersection where the mother had saved the life of a man during the war. Jointly commissioned by RAI and Karol film, Un altare per la madre was shot in the Friulian town of Castel d’Aviano and stars Angela Winkler and Franco Nero. Although Bruck has spoken openly about how Camon’s novel resonated with her personal experience, the adaptation was met with disapproval by the author, who withdrew his endorsement over the insertion of a love making scene between the mother and father. Despite Camon’s comments, however, Bruck has insisted on the importance of artistic freedom, stating “devo essere libera di esprimermi in piena autonomia” (Alessi 1986). Shortly after making Un altare per la madre, Bruck published Lettera alla madre (Letter to my mother, 1988), a novel that enacts an imaginary dialogue between the author and her own mother, who was murdered in Auschwitz when Bruck was a teenager.
Through her works and her witnessing, Edith Bruck’s voice continues to shape contemporary memory practices in literature and film. At ninety years old, in 2021, she accepted the Order of Merit from Sergio Mattarella, President of the Italian Republic, which is the highest ranking honor in Italy awarded to public figures. In the same year, she won the Premio Strega per i Giovani, the most prestigious literary award in Italy, for the memoir, Il pane perduto (Lost Bread), which recounts her Holocaust survival and sense of displacement, and which offers yet another of Bruck’s testimonies of a life lived so that we may never forget.
Improvviso (1979), Feature Film
Quale Sardegna (1983), Made for TV Film
Un altare per la madre (1986), Made for TV Film
Alain Elkann Interviews Podcast. Edith Bruck - 81 - Alain Elkann Interviews, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPc7oNOrhqs.
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Baffi, Giulio. “Traversata Nel Passato Verso La Coscienza.” L’Unita’, March 20, 1976. https://archivio.unita.news/assets/main/1976/03/20/page_007.pdf.
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“Oral History Interview with Edith Bruck - Collections Search - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn42756.
Persinsala. “Incontro con Nelo Risi | Persinsala. Cultura e critica dell’Audiovisivo e del Multimediale,” January 28, 2009. https://www.persinsala.it/web/news/incontro-con-nelo-risi.html.
Pető, Andrea. “One Film – Two Visits. Edith Bruck in Tiszakarád – Document Blog.” EHRI Document Blog (blog). https://blog.ehri-project.eu/2020/04/22/one-film-two-visits/.
---. “Politics of Memory in Edith Bruck’s Three Visits to Tiszakarád.” In Postmigrantisch gelesen: Transnationalität, Gender, Care, 219–34. transcript Verlag, 2021. https://doi.org/10.14361/9783839447284-013.
Picchietti, Virginia. “Andremo in città: A Levinasian Witnessing in Edith Bruck’s Short Story and Nelo Risi’s Film.”In Resistance, Heroism, Loss: World War II in Italian Literature and Film, 59-80, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2019.
Staff, T. H. R., and T. H. R. Staff. “‘Anita B.’: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter, April 28, 2015. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-reviews/anita-b-film-review-791988/.
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Webster, Brenda S. "An Interview with Edith Bruck." In 13th Moon, 11(1-2), 1993, pp. 170-75.
To cite this biofilmography, please use the reference: LaPenta, Kathleen (2022), "Edith Bruck's biofilmography", Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi, ed. www.gynocine.com