Rachel Weisz lends voice to father’s film about world’s first female rabbi
- Credit: Doug Peters/EMPICS Entertainment
When George Weisz took the lead in bringing a film to screen about the first female rabbi, little did he realise what a family collaboration it would become.
The 85-year-old retired engineer, who lives in Hampstead, stepped up to produce Regina when funding fell through for its director Diana Groo.
His daughter Rachel, star of stage and screen, offered to narrate part of the story of Regina Jonas, reading from archive material and letters which her stepbrother Mark helped translate into English.
“I felt I knew what the story was about and it was something that should not be lost, it should be preserved for the future and go out into the world because it has universal messages of human values,” says George.
Little is known of Rabbi Jonas, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish pedlar, she became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1935, and died in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 42.
The 65-minute poetic documentary, showing at Jewish community centre JW3, was five years in the making and built around one existing photograph of Jonas, and archive material she stored away, including letters from friends and official documents relating to her ordination.
The film begins in bustling Berlin on August 3, 1902, the day Regina was born, a lively musical score captures the era and despite its heavy subject matter, the documentary of courage and hope is both moving and fascinating.
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Black and white archive footage of the period accompanied by several voice-overs tells Jonas’ story including love letters from her great love Josef Norden who was deported with her to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942.
“These letters are very poignant, very moving,” says Weisz, who fled Hungary in 1939 with his Jewish family.
“It was a huge challenge to make a documentary where we’ve only got one photograph, nothing else. Before Jonas went off to the concentration camp she deposited about 20,000 bits of material in the archive, perhaps knowing she would die. It was all lost in East Germany and when the wall came down, it suddenly reappeared.
“She could have left Germany but she stayed behind to lead her community, to preach to them, to hold people’s hands. We have her last speech. She was a very great orator and she fought, she had to fight for the rights of women.
“My daughter Rachel does the voice-over for Regina, and that of course takes it to a different level, it lifts it. I mean we don’t use many professionals. I am a non- professional, I am an engineer.”
It’s the first time he’s collaborated with his daughter, who’s married to Bond star Daniel Craig. “It’s a very warm feeling; what is nice is both she and Daniel were very supportive. He’s a very nice person, in real life he’s extremely gentle.”
“What I like about Rachel,” he adds, “is she selects films which are not just box office but which have other values. She always looks for the additional and she was struck by the bravery of Regina who stayed behind to lead her congregation - she had a calling. It’s a universal message. This is not a Holocaust film; it’s a film about humanity and inhumanity,”
Groo herself has kept the film as authentic as she can. She chose her own grandmother for one of the voice-overs, not because she is a Holocaust survivor, “but regarding her age, if she had lived in Berlin she could have been one of the students of Regina Jonas.”
Rachel Weisz, currently filming in Ireland, said: “I was very inspired by the story of Regina and her great humanist values. I was struck by her bravery to remain in Germany during such a volatile time to be with her community. Regina is the most significant female figure in 20th- century Judaism, but all traces of her disappeared after her death in Auschwitz, and I wanted to support the filmmaker Diana Groo in telling Regina’s story in the film”
The Joir and Kato Foundation, named after George Weisz’s parents, funded the film.
Regina runs until May 28 at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, JW3.org.uk.