Like every filmmaker, I have hundreds of ideas. But with each documentary film I make, there always seems to be a strange event that starts me off. This time, it was an antisemitic attack against me on the No. 73 bus headed from Piccadilly Circus to King’s Cross Station in London one rainy day in October 2018. The reason this was strange is that I am not Jewish.
It so happened that I was wearing a long black coat, black trousers and a large black hat, along with my unusually bushy white beard, and I was downstairs on the last available seat. At the next stop, a tall, muscular man got on, saying “Shalom” as he passed me. One of my closest friends, Gary Phillips, who is Jewish, often greets me with the same word, so, of course, I repeated to him, “Shalom.” For the next 60 to 90 seconds, this man loudly berated me regarding all the Palestinian children I had murdered, spewing forth tropes that might have been familiar in Germany in the 1930s. I stood up, informed him that I wasn’t Jewish (I still deeply regret doing this) and went upstairs.
Throughout this attack, aboard that crowded bus, no one said anything. They did nothing. I always thought we Brits stood up to bullies and bigots. When I got off the bus, shocked at the treatment, I immediately rang Don McVey, my cameraman, and told him I was going to make Getting Away with Murder(s), come what may. He agreed to join me.
I had originally put the idea for the film to my friend Sir Ronald Harwood, shortly after he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Pianist in 2003. I asked him if he thought a film forensically examining why 99 percent of those who carried out the murders in the Holocaust were never prosecuted was a sustainable idea for a documentary. Ronnie, as I called him, had written more films, plays and articles about the Shoah than anyone else I have met. I also asked for his thoughts on the fact that I am not Jewish and whether that might be a problem.
He said he thought the idea was terrific and reflected that my not being Jewish was, in fact, a huge advantage because, as he’d discovered whilst carrying out research for one of his projects (and as I would later find as well), there are many Holocaust-denying websites that talk about “the Spielberg lie,” presupposing that all films and television series made about the Holocaust are produced by Jews. In my case, he explained, they wouldn’t be able to discredit the film’s content as the product of someone “with an axe to grind.”
Ronnie also told me that he’d recently visited Lithuania, where his parents and grandparents were born, and the experience had greatly upset him as he’d found the country still had its fair share of antisemites. Whatever it was that had happened there angered him so much that he couldn’t bring himself to tell me more. He quickly changed the subject, promising to tell me another time. Sadly, he never did.
I had been thinking of going to Lithuania for the film along with Ronnie, but unfortunately, the difficult search for financing for the film lasted for more than 16 years, toward the end of which Ronnie had become ill. He died in September of 2020, during production; the film is dedicated to him.
I was fortunate enough to enlist Robin Lustig, a highly accomplished UK radio broadcaster, having for decades presented BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight. Robin’s grandmother had failed to gain entry into the UK as she was deemed too old at 42, becoming instead one of 137,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators at the 9th Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania. Fortunately, her young daughter, Robin’s mother, did manage to escape. Robin agreed to appear in the film in scenes shot in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
Because Robin had never appeared in a documentary before, I’d arranged to fly us out a day early to walk around Vilnius with Don, the cameraman, so that we could both get the feel of Robin’s strengths and possible weaknesses. Incidentally, any apprehension I may have felt vanished, and he turned out to be far better than I could ever have hoped for.
As we strolled through the main square, we learned that it was a national holiday and saw a large group of people preparing to set off on a march. Among the contemporary Lithuanian flags on display, there were also several red flags with an unfamiliar black symbol prominent over a white background, disturbingly similar to a swastika. These were the flags of the old Lithuanian Nationalist Union, which was very active in the 1930s. Walking further on, Robin furtively pointed out one man. Somewhat baffled, I asked what I was supposed to be looking for. He told me to look at what was written on the man’s leather jacket. Very clearly emblazoned was “Latvian Waffen SS Div.”
Clearly, fascism from World War II had not ended in Lithuania once the fighting had stopped. It had just quietly receded into the shadows, waiting in the wings for an opportunity to rise up once again whenever called for.
If the man on the London bus was the impetus for committing to make the film, this man in his prized, hateful jacket validated that commitment. I sincerely hope that he and others who continue to flirt with that repellent, dark side of human nature watch Getting Away with Murder(s) and, perhaps, think again. Thanks to the streaming giant Viaplay, it has been available in Lithuania since July 2022 and will remain on that platform for seven years. Starting on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2023, U.S. audiences can watch Getting Away with Murder(s) on the following streaming services: Amazon, Tubi, Roku, Xumo, Peacock and Plex.
Opening image: Director David Wilkinson in front of the infamous Auschwitz gate. Copyright Guerilla Distribution Limited.