There are some topics in history that are so sensitive that perhaps the only response is through horror. This is what L.A.-based Director Michael Lazovsky found as he developed his American Film Institute project Magdalena, based on his own Jewish grandmother’s story growing up in communist Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Using subjectivity as much as possible, it allows us to see how the experience has shaped her directly from her perspective, resulting in a deeply moving narrative. Bringing past horror and present trauma together through seamless transitions, eerie sound design and a dark, foreboding tone, as well as weaving in propaganda from the era, Magdalena is a sensitive, scary portrayal of life under the unspeakable trail of evil. We had the chance to talk to Lazovsky about substituting abandoned L.A. for 1970s Bratislava, how he storyboarded the film on his iPhone, finding the right archival clips and learning about his grandmother’s difficult story.
Magdalena is based on your grandmother’s story. Was it something that you always wanted to share, or did it take a longer time to gain an understanding?
It was definitely something that was taboo on my dad’s side of the family, for a very long time. She wasn’t the direct source of this information; it was mostly my dad overhearing conversations as a kid that he wasn’t supposed to hear. Neither of his parents wanted to talk about anything they went through. I also did my own research as well.
I wanted to make it as accurate as possible. It was hard when my family treated it like such a taboo and didn’t want to talk about it. But I tried to do my best and I found out how due to the lasting effects of trauma she had such a hard time talking about it. That’s where the idea originated: there have been so many films about WW2 and the Holocaust but I really wanted to do something different and focus on the mental health aspects of it. It’s something you can’t really physically escape; like a cloud constantly over your head.
There have been so many films about WW2 and the Holocaust but I really wanted to do something different and focus on the mental health aspects of it.
What people might not know are the challenges that Jewish people faced in the Eastern Bloc after the Holocaust. Was that something that you discovered as well while making the film?
I did know because my dad grew up in Bratislava. They were not religious at all, but they saw Judaism as a race more than a religion and he had to hide that fact and his connection to the Holocaust as much as possible. And he said he was bullied and was told he was Jewish even before he knew it. People saw his family as other and different. So hearing those stories from a very young age, I got a sense that it wasn’t too friendly even after the Holocaust.
When did you realise it was fertile ground for a horror story?
At first it wasn’t really a horror, but as we developed it, it got a lot darker. To justify bringing in some of the horror elements, I really wanted to make this a subjective film, to really see everything through her lens. We talked about making Czechoslovakia dark and making the visuals morbid: the reason was that I wanted to approach every scene and the design as if it were an extension of her mental state. So keeping it as subjective as possible was our north star for the whole film.
And horror is such a good genre when collapsing the boundaries between past and present. What was it like trying to make the transitions as seamless as possible?
It was a huge goal of mine to make it as if the trauma is happening in real time so I really went for those seamless transitions. There is a really good Czech New Wave film from 1969 called The Cremator. I was inspired by the stuff they did. I figured out this fun trick. We do a thing where the actor is reacting to something, and the background has changed, but we’re so tight that you don’t see it until we pull out.
I wanted to approach every scene and the design as if it were an extension of her mental state.
We did a lot of tests. We did storyboards. And the best thing now is that with an iPhone, you can just do video storyboards anywhere and cut them together. I had people coming by my apartment and we just shot storyboards to test it and cut it in Premiere to see if it worked or not.
I loved the way that you mixed in propaganda images from the time. Did you find the footage in archives or did you make it yourself? How did you cut it together?
The video on the television set, when they’re coming into the apartment for the first time, is taken from an archive that was actually part of a musical. But almost everything that was made at the time was made for the government for the purpose of propaganda. We recreated that same one in real life in California. Then for the posters, they were all based on Soviet and Czechoslovakian posters that we found at that time. We couldn’t actually use them so we had to recreate them.
My grandfather was also really into photography, so we had a lot of great references from the time when my dad was growing up.
And you also recreate 70s Bratislava in such thrilling detail. What were the challenges of doing that in modern day L.A.?
That was a real challenge. We were actually warned by the production design head at AFI that we weren’t going to find a place. The thing is that the architecture of the 60s in the USA is so different to what was available in Bratislava. There are very specific things like radiators and windows that looked different in the way that they were built. We found this mining town in Southern California that is actually rented out for productions. So the apartment was filmed in a real psychiatric housing wing and the flashbacks were filmed in a real abandoned hospital. My grandfather was also really into photography, so we had a lot of great references from the time when my dad was growing up. So I just had albums of source material that I could give to my production designer.
Did your family end up seeing the film? What was their reaction?
That was really intense. I screened it for my mum and dad and I didn’t want to be in the room because my dad still has the Soviet culture ingrained in him. Like when we take photos, he stands up really straight and shows almost no emotion. He can appear a little closed off. So I didn’t watch it with them. But I caught up with him right after. I could see he was in tears and was very emotional. But he was very happy with it. He was so emotional. I think since his father passed away, I hadn’t seen him cry. That was when I was like nine years old. So that was emotional for me to see him react in that way.
What are you working on next?
Right now I have my other short that I’m finishing up. We’re still in post-production on that. We’re hoping that in the next month and a half or so we’ll get that out and into the circuit. There’s also another feature film that I’m working on and developing. When it comes to horror, I specifically want to do character-driven horror films. I have a lot of internal fears and find it cathartic to write about them and confront them with my films.