Is Ari Taub a Nazi lover?
At least one moviegoer thought so. It happened five years ago at a test screening of Taub’s “Last Letters from Monte Rosa,” an independent World War II film whose morally staunchest character is a Wermacht lieutenant.
“Aren’t you ashamed as a Jew to be making a hero out of a Nazi?” a man asked Taub.
Poised to shop the film to distributors, the director was so unnerved that he promptly shelved the reel in his vault.
“It raised my Jewish guilt,” Taub says. “I’m not a director whose purpose is to leave my audience offended.”
It took the glowing reception a few years later to “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s big-studio work with a title and storyline strikingly similar to Taub’s, to persuade him to pull his film out of storage.
Six international film festivals later, “Last Letters from Monte Rosa” will have its commercial opening on Aug. 8 for a one-week run at the new Indiescreens theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Seven years in the making and shot on the spindliest of budgets with a cast of European actors unknown to American filmgoers, the fact-based “Last Letters from Monte Rosa” follows four character sets in the northern Italian highlands in the last months of the war: battered Germans braced for the American army’s decisive onslaught; comic Italian partisans spoiling for a fight; comic Italian soldiers with little stomach for a fight; and a local black marketeer whose war profiteering gets the better of him.
The key narrative centers on the infighting between the putative German and Italian allies, with the big combat set piece reserved for the film’s last minutes. But the German commanding office, Lt. Günther as played by Thomas Pohn, is the beating heart of Caio Ribeiro’s script. It is mostly his somber letters to his wife at home that are heard in voiceover. And it is his climactic sacrifice for the sake of his men, arising more from an old-school Prussian sense of duty than any directive in the Nazi field manual, that will resonate most vividly in audience members’ heads on the ride home.
Shot with an assured, classic European look, “Last Letters” joins a short list of movies that dare to humanize, never mind valorize, Nazi fighters — “The Young Lions,” “Cross of Iron” and “Das Boot” among them.
Taub argues that the war found many innocent victims even among Axis combatants, and this conviction informed his storytelling.
“I’m proud to tell things the way they were,” he says. “Nobody can question the world in front of the camera.”
Though “Last Letters” was shot mostly in the U.S. Northeast, Taub meticulously matched American to historical European forest locations virtually tree for tree. And he offered his trans-Atlantic cast rent-free lodgings — his own Williamsburg production loft.
Taub, 44, has knocked around 100-odd films in various capacities, including his previously directed venture, the straight-to-video “The Fallen,” also a war picture. The highly assimilated product of a Jewish plastic surgeon-artist father and Norwegian mother, Taub concedes that his blond, puggish good looks come mostly from his Viking side. Confident that “Last Letters from Monte Rosa” will prove to be his breakout work, and though no Jewish character is seen and the word “Jew” is never heard on screen, the admonition of the heckler from five years ago still rustles his genetic roots.
“I’m returning to the pool,” he says. “After all is said and done, I’m convinced that only a Jew could have made this movie.”