Despite his horrific backstory, the character of Max in The Second Sun is so positive and upbeat that even John Buffalo Mailer (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), the actor who portrays him, became a little concerned. “Watching the movie, I thought, ‘God, you know, with a different score this could almost be a thriller. Is this guy, Max, a little unhinged?’” he laughed. “He is so nice and positive all the time.”
However, it is precisely this high level of positivity that gives The Second Sun its unique and timely voice. Directed by Jennifer Gelfer, this drama, which is based on true events, follows the improbable and tumultuous romance between Max, a Holocaust survivor, and Joy (Sweetbitter’s Eden Epstein), a young woman with a dark past of her own. After meeting in a lonely bar on a cold winter night, the two engage in an emotional and revealing conversation, confronting their harrowing pasts as they fight for a chance at true happiness.
While Gelfer understands the doubts that people may have about Max’s unwavering positivity, she still believes that his attitude is beyond reasonable. “I do think it’s realistic,” she says. “I think that those people need to be celebrated now as opposed to getting frustrated with them because we have so little of it and the world is missing that.” Those that watch the film will discover that Max’s positivity comes from an authentic and miraculous place, and that the incident which spawns this positivity was actually “inspired by true events.”
Gelfer truly believes that we are missing Max’s positivity and wanted to craft a story that would run counter to the cynicism and negativity that seems to permeate so many lives. The film ends with the definition of Bashert appearing on screen, defining it as “Meant to be. Destined. Fated.” Gelfer hopes that this message will serve as an inspiration to viewers, allowing them to look at the world in a different, more positive way. “I think that there are miracles still left in the world,” she says. “I want people to believe in that again. I want people to believe in the magic of the miracle of life, as opposed to how dire it can seem. I just think that we need that message.”
The love story between Max and Joy is the main focus of The Second Sun, but this was not always the case. First written as a play by James Patrick Nelson, the story originally focused on the relationship between mothers and sons, specifically Joy’s relationship with her son and Max’s relationship with his mother. While this aspect of the original play is present in the film, it moved to the back burner so the romance between Joy and Max could take center stage. This, in turn, impacted the major characters, who were romanticized to fit the new direction.
The film also expands the scope of the story. The stage performance takes place on two sets with only two characters: Max and Joy. Gelfer, however, wanted to explore her characters in more depth. “By the time we got the screenplay, I was very interested in the backstories of the people,” she says. “The play was a lot of exposition, mostly talk, but in the movie, you get to sort of experience what we’re talking about.”
To give viewers a more vibrant picture, Gelfer included flashbacks to Max’s time in Europe with his mother and Joy’s life with her son. She also added a new character, a bartender (Ciaran Byrne), into the mix to serve as a friend and confidante to Max, along with actual portrayals of Max’s mother and Joy’s son.
With the inclusion of flashbacks in the film, Gelfer was given the opportunity to tell part of Max’s story in his native Polish tongue. Viewers will quickly notice that those scenes lack subtitles, something that Gelfer is very much aware of. “I purposely did that. I wanted the behavior of the people to basically speak,” she says. “I felt that it was through their behavior that they were already letting you know what was said.”
Despite relying heavily on the Holocaust and World War II for its narrative structure, neither Gelfer or Buffalo Mailer see The Second Sun as a film about the Holocaust. “I believe it’s really a love story. I never set out to make Holocaust movie,” says Gelfer. “The Holocaust just happened to be one of the tragedies in the film.”
Still, the emotion and weight of the Holocaust and the stories of the survivors were not lost on either one of them. “We are in the midst of losing this generation that directly went through it,” says Buffalo Mailer. My father was the World War II generation and, when they’re gone, we are still going to need to understand it and wrap our heads around the monstrosities.”
Sam Gelman is a news editor at CBR, where he covers comics, movies and TV. He is also the communications and program officer at the Yeshiva University Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. You can follow him on Twitter @SamMgelman.