Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon

84 mins.
Directed by Andrea Simon

Followed by a Q&A with director Andrea Simon.

Director Andrea Simon set out to tell the story of legendary Bulgarian-Jewish screenwriter and novelist Angel Wagenstein to a broader audience with this incendiary documentary. The film explores the life of Angel Wagenstein, whose biography and work tell a story of repression and resistance in Europe over the past 100 years. Interviews with Wagenstein himself reveal his remarkable wit and intellect even today. Simon’s film is a must-see chronicle of a complicated history through the eyes of an artist who spoke truth to power throughout his storied career.

The documentary, which includes clips from many of Wagenstein’s films, was an official selection of Jewish Film Festivals in New York and Washington.

Presented as part of Wagenstein100, a retrospective presented by Amherst Cinema and the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst.

Angel Wagenstein Biography

Angel Wagenstein was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, on Oct. 17, 1922, but spent his childhood in France, where his Sephardic Jewish family had emigrated for political reasons due to their leftist politics. Wagenstein was an avowed antifascist from a young age, and he led a Jewish antifascist resistance group in Sofia during WWII. For this he was twice captured and imprisoned by fascist authorities and was even tortured and sentenced to death after his first successful escape, but he survived to see Hitler’s demise and the rise of the postwar antifascist government in Bulgaria.

Wagenstein became the first international graduate of the famous VGIK film academy in Moscow. After leaving VGIK in 1950, he went on to a successful screenwriting career, penning scripts for more than 50 projects for Bulgarian, Czech and East German film studios. The stories he told were intelligent and uncompromising, often offering subtle critique of the realities of the new regime and drawing from his personal experiences. His scripts were politically provocative but critically acclaimed, including three successful collaborations with the East German director Konrad Wolf, whom he met as a student in Moscow: Goya, The Little Prince and Stars. The latter drew on Wagenstein’s own life story, and it is widely considered one of the greatest and most important films about the Holocaust.

Throughout his film career, Angel Wagenstein has worked with the best-known Bulgarian filmmakers, including Zahari Zhandov, Anton Marinovich, Borislav Sharaliev and Ivan Nichev. Among Wagenstein’s Bulgarian and international productions are classical film adaptations, such as Aesop (1970, Bulgaria/ Czechoslovakia, dir. Rangel Vulchanov), celebrated historical dramas, including Adams’ Rib (1956, dir. Anton Marinovich) and Boris I (1985, dir. Borislav Sharaliev), thrillers, such as The Law of the Sea (1958, dir. Vakim Vakimov) and the acclaimed 2-part TV Holocaust drama Hotel Shanghai (1997, dir. Peter Patzak) that traces the path of escape by Jewish people to Asia during and after the Sino-Japanese War of 1937.

Wagenstein is also a successful novelist, and his books were translated into several languages. Farewell, Shanghai (2004) and Isaac’s Torah (2000)—part of a trilogy dedicated to the fate of European Jews during WWII—were published in the US by Other Press, New York. Critics praised these books as “sweeping cinematic” (The Nation) and “a major contributions to WWII literature” (The Reporter).

Angel Wagenstein has been a well-known intellectual and public figure in Bulgaria’s cultural and political scene throughout his life. After the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in 1990, he often spoke on behalf of Shalom, the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria. In 2003, he wrote an influential essay about the hitherto marginalized Holocaust and deportations in the Balkans. He was also elected in the Bulgarian Parliament in 1990-1991. Wagenstein, who lives in Sofia, has been decorated with the state’s highest honors in both France and Bulgaria.