Writer, producer, actor, poet, Grant Fraser’s a man of many trades. His latest work, Strangers to the World, is part of the 2020 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, and it’s a thought-provoking examination of the lives of Franz Jaegerstaetter and Etty Hillesum, two heroic strangers living through the Second World War whose astounding bravery reveals the strength of individual sacrifice for moral good.
With a great cast and powerful message, it’s well worth a look.
We caught up with Grant before the world premiere.
What was the inspiration for choosing Franz and Etty as the subject matter for the film?
I had investigated the lives and writings of both after reading material written about them by
Thomas Merton. I found Etty’s diaries and letters constituted a beautifully composed and fearless commentary on what it was like to live under the heel of an oppressor. Likewise, Franz Jaegerstaetter wrote with powerful insight in his letters and reflections of the horrors inherent in Nazism. They were very different people from different backgrounds, and I found their lives inspiring.
There are several references to poets in the film including Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas More; as a poet and filmmaker yourself, did their work inspire the film, or were they in some way connected to the protagonists?
Rilke’s work was well known in Europe in the 1940s. Etty would almost certainly have been familiar with his works. Franz, as a simple farmer, had little education to speak of, but he did, unusually, have a small library of books. One of those books was a biography of St. Thomas More. More was a lifelong inspiration to him.
You’ve attracted a solid cast and crew, including Rachel Griffiths and Richard Pleasance [Boom Crash Opera], who did the music. How did you go about getting these people involved?
Rachel Griffiths is the niece of two of my oldest friends, Andy Hamilton and Peter Hamilton. They are both brilliant fellows. They were kind enough to arrange a meeting with her. She kindly read the script and was very taken with it. She said to me ‘some stories just must be told’, and she immediately agreed to play Etty. She knew we couldn’t match Hollywood salaries, but agreed to do it anyhow. As I remember, Richard Pleasance heard about the project and found it interesting and approached me about being involved. I was delighted as I found Richard an enormously sympathetic and astute listener. I believe that his musical score is a brilliant complement to the themes of the film. [Also, our DOP] Ellery Ryan, one of Australia’s foremost cinematographers [Angel Baby, Emo the Musical], we had both endured a year of Law at Melbourne University together. He, very sensibly, left after one year and went on to a renowned creative career. I was never so brave and went on to practice law, grudgingly, for about 40 years. We were informed about [actor] Oscar Redding and his fine body of work [Puberty Blues, The Principal, Deep Water], so I rang him as he was interstate at the time, and he auditioned for me over the phone. I only needed a short audition. In general terms, creative film people seemed attracted to the project, because it is an unusual film that has a very positive message.
The development and progress of the film have largely been made possible by my co-producer Jannine Barnes. Jannine’s years of experience and acute insights have been invaluable to me. The delightful Aphrodite Kondos brought her sure hand to the costume design and selection, and she added the bounty of her years of experience as the Art Designer for the film.
Raising finance for a film can be a great challenge, what methods did you use to attract funding? And what was the timeline for the film from idea to release?
The idea for making a film occurred to me in about 2002. Funding for the film came from film industry associates and colleagues who were able to donate through the good graces of The Australian Cultural Fund which has been enormously supportive of the project. The Australian Cultural fund agreed to be involved and they were able to provide some tax relief to donors. Although I had promised myself that I wouldn’t, I eventually put some of my own hard-earned into the project.
The film had us wondering if we could ever sacrifice ourselves for a greater cause. Is this something you grappled with while making the film?
It is certainly something that was at the forefront of my mind when making the film and it has been a consistent comment by many of those who have seen the film.
Strangers to the World is a dramatised documentary. What motivated you to make the film this way as opposed to a more conventional doco?
I thought the project screamed out for the intimacy and power of the dramatic experience, created by fine actors at the top of their form.
Both Franz and Etty are European, did you consider having your cast use accents or did you feel this wasn’t important to the work?
I thought long and hard about accents. Ultimately, I took the view that accents might be distracting as most of the people portrayed did not have a word of English. The crucial thing, as far as I saw it, is that people would easily understand the actors.
Franz Jaegerstatter was eventually beatified, did Etty Hillesum get honoured in the same or similar way?
I do not think that the Jewish religion has an equivalent to beatification, but as far as I am concerned Etty is a saint for all humanity.
What message would you like the audience to take away from the film?
In our very busy and confusing world, there does not seem much space for conscience and questions of conscience. I suspect that both Etty and Franz thought as much about their own fraught times. In a sense, I hope that I will leave the audience a little troubled by that thought.
Have you got any projects in the pipeline as a filmmaker or actor?
I’m presently working to prepare some podcasts of my own poetry with introductions that explain how the poems came to be written.