EXCLUSIVE: SHTTL, an ambitious under-the-radar drama which is the feature helming debut of writer/director Ady Walter, has wrapped in Ukraine. The film is eyeing the 2022 festival circuit and tells the story of the inhabitants of a Yiddish village at the border of Poland, 24 hours before the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany (aka the Barbarossa operation) which would take their lives.
A passion project for all involved, the film was made with an international cast of actors, including Saul Rubinek (The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Hunters, Unforgiven) speaking Yiddish in a village built for the film which will now be transformed into an open-air museum. Eli Rosen, consultant on Netflix series Unorthodox, was on set throughout.
The project was developed and initiated by Forecast Pictures’ Jean-Charles Lévy (The Last Mercenary), who has been working for 15 years with Walter. Vlad Riashyn’s Star Media later came in to finish the development and co-produce.
Walter tells Deadline the movie is “a symbol, in motion, of the Shoah, not as a completely accurate event in itself. I’ve been obsessed for years about how to make a movie about this disaster, and I thought, well, maybe the only way to do so is not just through a fiction, but by showing life — which is indeed about to vanish — rather than showing destruction and death as we nearly always see in movies about that fundamental topic.”
The title SHTTL is a twist on “shtetl,” the Yiddish word for village. Walter says he dropped “e” in an ode to La Disparition, a 1969 novel by Georges Perec, whose mother died in Auschwitz. In it, the letter never appears. “Its absence marks a hollow, an empty space, a vertigo, a gaping hole. Shttl, my film, pays homage by leaving out the same letter,” says Walter.
Moshe Lobel (Broadway’s Yiddish adaptation of Fiddler On The Roof) stars with Anisia Stasevich, Pyotr Ninevsky, Antoine Millet and Daniel Kenigsberg.
Rubinek, who is fluent in Yiddish, plays a rabbi in the film which was a very personal experience. At the age of eight, he emigrated from Germany to Canada with his family. His father had told the boy that “’Hitler was a king who went to war with the rest of the world in order to stop me from doing Yiddish theater.’ As I got older, I realized that’s actually not so far from the truth. So, in a way me doing this film, and being an actor, is for my father… I knew it was going to be an overwhelming experience, but I didn’t know how overwhelming. I knew it was going to be interesting, but I’m the child of survivors, I was affected. I’ve played survivors before, I’ve played rabbis before, but I’ve never been in Eastern Europe working in Yiddish the way my father did before Hitler stopped him.”
SHTTL is produced by Levy, Star Media’s Riashyn and Ryta Grebenchikova, and Wild Tribe’s Olias Barco. The film is backed by a mix of state Ukraine funding and private equity.
Says Levy, “When Ady came to see me with this idea, at first I had my doubts about how we could put together such a challenge as a first-time director’s feature film. But of course the story and its historical, emotional and educational power took over and we decided to both dig into this adventure, three years ago. The movie is a tribute to life as we felt that a movie about the Shoah shouldn’t be about death only, in order to pay respect to the people who are not here anymore.”
Authenticity was key for the filmmakers. Producers chose a location in the middle of the woods 60 kilometers from Kyiv (Kiev) and built a village from scratch. Twenty-five buildings, including one of the largest hand-painted synagogues in the world, were erected and household items commonly used in the 1940s were brought in from all over Ukraine.
The location will be maintained as is and become into an open-air museum with the aim of educating local schoolchildren and helping Ukrainians to better understand their Jewish history and culture.