August, 1945. A coachload of children arrive at the Calgarth Estate by Lake Windermere, England. They are child survivors of the Nazi Holocaust that has devastated Europe’s Jewish population. Carrying only the clothes they wear and a few meagre possessions, they bear the emotional and physical scars of all they have suffered.
Charged with looking after the children is child psychologist Oscar Friedmann (Thomas Kretschmann). Along with his team of counsellors, including art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai), philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (Tim McInnerny) and sports coach Jock Lawrence (Iain Glen), they have four months to help the children reclaim their lives.
By the lake, the children learn English, play football, ride bikes, express their trauma through painting - and begin to heal. Some locals taunt them, but they are embraced by others. Haunted by nightmares, they yearn for news of their loved ones. When the Red Cross arrives with letters about the fates of their families, none of them receive good news. But in the absence of relatives, the children find family in each other.
From Bafta-nominated screenwriter Simon Block and Bafta and Emmy-winning director Michael Samuels, The Windermere Children is the first dramatisation of a remarkable true story about hope in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the story of 300 young orphaned Jewish refugees who began new lives in England’s Lake District in the summer of 1945, based on the powerful first-person testimony of survivors who began their new lives in the UK.
That summer, Europe lay in ruins. Six million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, but in the liberated concentration camps there were survivors. Among them were many Jewish children, long separated from their families, who had somehow survived camps, slave labour factories and death marches. Without homes or families to return to they were alone in the world.
On 14 August 1945, only a few months after the liberation of the camps, 10 decommissioned RAF Stirling bomber aircraft left Prague airport bound for Crosby-on-Eden near Carlisle. On board were 300 young people they hailed from varied backgrounds: rural Poland, metropolitan Warsaw, Czechoslovakia Berlin - some had grown up in poverty, others in middle-class comfort. There were over 40 girls, but the majority of the group were boys.
It had all been organised by the Central British Fund, (CBF). Leonard Montefiore, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, used his pre-war experience of the Kindertransport and successfully lobbied the British government to agree to allow up to 1,000 young Jewish concentration camp survivors into Britain. It was decided that the first 300 children would be brought from the liberated camp of Theresienstadt to Britain.
Empty accommodation was found on the shores of Lake Windermere in a defunct factory. During the war, it had built seaplanes, but after D-Day the factory was closed, and the workers’ accommodation stood empty. With space to house them and in a truly beautiful setting, it was to prove the perfect location for these traumatised children.
Despite the fact that the UK government initially only offered two-year temporary visas, with strict immigration policies enforced in other countries and without families to return to, it soon became clear that there was nowhere else for most of the children to go. And so, in the end, many of the 300 stayed for in the UK for their entire lives, becoming British citizens and raising British children. Now, 75 years later, the close friendships that were forged in Windermere remain, and many consider each other as family.
Here is the interview with director Michael .
What story is The Windermere Children telling?
Our story is taking something that could be described as a footnote in history, that very few people know about, but which is extraordinary. On the one hand it’s telling a story that’s very particular and specific to what was happening in 1945 immediately after the end of the Second World War, with these children who had survived the unimaginable, having been liberated only three months previously from the concentration camps. And on the other hand, it works as a universal refugee story that I think is relevant today.
Our film is about the 300 children who were taken to the shores of Lake Windermere where almost all had lost their entire families, to be helped by a group of therapists and volunteers. And where, during the four months that they were there, the other survivors in some way became the family that they had lost. It's a redemptive story; it’s a story where there’s hope by the end of it. Obviously, after years in the Nazi hellholes, nothing can ever get resolved in four months, but by the end of our film you think that there’s hope for these kids, that they can live a life. For me, that’s one of the things that makes the story so exciting.
What drew you to directing this project?
I’d read a lot in the past about the Holocaust, and for a long time I’d wanted to make something around this subject, but I’d never heard of the Windermere Project. It was immediately obvious to me that this was an extraordinary story. What I found particularly exciting about Simon’s script was that it was about the after-effects of the concentration camps on the survivors very soon after their liberation, rather than taking us through the camps which I felt I’ve seen many times before.
Also the script plays the drama in the moment, without flashbacks to the camps. I loved that the aim was to avoid treating the child survivors as two-dimensional victims. The script was cleverer and more nuanced than that. They speak like real children, and they’re often very funny. Yet these children have experienced the unimaginable. I thought there was the potential to make a film that was psychologically complex and emotionally very powerful. Crucially, I felt that without being pat or simplistic we could make something that was redemptive, where by the end of the film the audience would feel that there’s hope that these children have a future.
Because it’s based on lived experiences and first person testimony, did you feel additional responsibility when working on this film?
I’ve made a number of factually-based dramas, and there’s always a huge responsibility to the real people that you’re making the film about because they’re real and not fictional inventions. I think that given what the survivors had gone through, we all felt this even more acutely. But here’s the challenge with any factual drama… you want to make a film that’s accurate but you have to ensure the film works dramatically. The audience will not make concessions for your drama because it’s based on a true story. The film either works as a drama or it doesn’t - that’s the challenge.
Can you tell us about the overall experience on set shooting The Windermere Children and what the atmosphere was like?
There was a wonderful atmosphere, even though it was an intense shoot about an extremely painful story. It might seem bizarre to say this given the subject matter, but there was a lovely banter among cast and crew and this made for a happy shoot. But it was clear to me that everyone - actors and crew - had all come on board because they were genuinely touched by the story. So in that sense, it didn’t feel like a regular shoot. At times I had to pinch myself: I was making a film about something I care passionately about, and I was working with a wonderfully dedicated crew - some whom I’d worked with before - and with a terrific cast. What more could I ask for?
Did the shoot present any challenges?
In a word, ‘yes’. We were being very ambitious. There were the usual challenges of any shoot such as multiple locations which involve moving the film unit around, eg the Calgarth estate, which is actually a composite of three locations. We were also filming in woods and in - and sometimes under! - lakes. And of course we had big set-pieces such as the football match.
But there were challenges that were specific to this film. Most of the young actors were restricted in the number of hours they could work each day because of their age. Also, we often had literally hundreds of extras (mostly children) to contend with, all of whom had to go through make-up and be costumed. The wardrobe and make-up departments were heroic! But crucially, there were the acting challenges. The fact that our film is about traumatised children. This required an intense focus from our young and inexperienced cast most of whom had never acted before. We had chosen the actors very carefully, and I knew we had assembled a smart and talented ensemble, but I was still absolutely bowled over by how good their performances were on the day.
Were there any personal highlights?
There were so many! I was hugely excited by the performances we were getting from the young cast. They’re the emotional core of the film, so their performances had to work. It was also fantastic seeing them act opposite wonderful adult actors such as Thomas, Iain, Tim and Romola.
I loved the scene where Oscar confronts the local boys who are doing a Nazi salute. It was fascinating discussing with Thomas Kretschmann how Oscar would respond, and I think Thomas does something wonderfully counter-intuitive and unexpected. And of course there was the arrival of the real Holocaust survivors for the filming of the final scene. That really was something!
At what point did the Holocaust survivors come on set? What was that like and how did everyone’s reaction affect the feeling on set?
The actual survivors came to set on the penultimate day of filming. This had a big effect on everyone. We were nearly at the end of a pretty full-on shoot, and we’d filmed the survivors’ story when they were children at Windermere, and then the real survivors themselves, now in their late 80s and 90s, turn up! It’s difficult to explain how moving this was. I was thinking, my God, we’ve just filmed their stories, and there they are! I looked around and saw grizzled crew who were veterans from filming gruelling battle scenes on Game Of Thrones in tears.
Can you tell us about filming with the young cast and how the cast connected with each other?
Many of the young cast had little or no acting experience, so rehearsals were vital to prepare them for the shoot. I’d prepared a diet of Holocaust films and written material to get their heads into the right space, then intensive rehearsing of the scenes, often explaining the basics of filming. The extraordinary thing is that they’re all so bright and attentive that they took it all in and when they turned up to shoot it was as if I was dealing with actors who had piles of experience. I was astounded. I wasn’t having to explain things multiple times.
There was a memorable occasion when one of the young actors, Tomasz, who plays Arek, came up and asked me how he should perform in the scene when he gets the news that his family had died in the camps. It’s difficult to direct how someone should respond to news of the death of their entire family. The performance could feel horribly mannered if over-directed. Tomasz smiled and came up with what for me was the immortal behind-the-scenes line of the shoot: “The thing is, I’m not an actor, I’m studying electrical engineering.” In the event, the performance Tomasz gave was pitch perfect.
What did Romola, Iain, Tim and Thomas bring to each of their roles?
I got the impression that each had wanted to be in this film for different and often very personal reasons, and we’d discussed this when we first met and during rehearsals. I think you see that commitment in each of their performances. Because this is very much an ensemble drama where we have to keep multiple storylines going at the same time, and we only have 90 minutes of screen time, we needed actors of their calibre who can convey a lot very succinctly.
It really is the less-is-more approach to acting. Also, they were all extremely generous and encouraging to our young cast of novice actors. For example, during the football training and match scenes, Iain Glen was so supportive in helping them and giving them confidence.
As we see progress being made in the children’s recovery, the film takes us from tragedy to hope, how did you work with cast through these emotions?
Again, rehearsals. Films are almost always shot out of sequence, so it’s easy to lose where a character is emotionally in his or her storyline. In an ensemble piece with multiple characters, this is even more hazardous. So during rehearsals, I took each character aside, and we went through the entire script and discussed were they were as individual characters in all their scenes. And then we got people together to rehearse the actual scenes. This sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it’s extraordinary to me how in the pre-production process, proper rehearsal time can often be sacrificed. I think that’s a serious mistake.
How do you bring positivity to such a harrowing historical event?
We tried to make the film a balance between pain and emotion combined with humour and energy. So for example, the Ike character likes English girls and throws himself in with gusto even though he can’t speak the language. It’s as if they are ‘normal’ kids who do things that normal kids do like poke fun at each other and banter and want relationships… but each carries around a very long shadow. And often this comes out when they can’t control things, such as in their nightmares.
But one of the things I loved about making this film is that the Windermere Project was an enlightened one, where although they cannot possibly achieve everything in only four months - they’re only scratching the surface of the psychological trauma, and the therapists and volunteers are dealing with a level of trauma amongst children no-one has seen before - but the fact is that the children do develop and flower. And depicting this was one of the joys of making this film.
I wanted to visualise how the beauty of Windermere and the freedom the children had helped in their progress. To show how the other survivors on some level become the family that so many of them have lost. And to know that although nothing will be simple and straightforward going ahead in their lives, they do have a future. They do have hope.
The Children of Windermere goes out on BBC Two on 27 January 2020, the 75th International Holocaust Memorial Day.
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