Angel Wagenstein: Legendary filmmaker celebrates 95th birthday with documentary

Written by on October 22, 2017 in People - Comments Off on Angel Wagenstein: Legendary filmmaker celebrates 95th birthday with documentary

‘Art is a Weapon’, a documentary made by the American film director Andrea Simon, is being screened at some movie theatres and other venues in Sofia these days. The film celebrates the life, but also the 95th birthday, of a great Bulgarian by the name of Angel Wagenstein.

Andrea Simon picked Wagenstein, since his life tells tales. And he himself does. So do the 52 movies the Bulgarian Jew made, as a director and screenplay writer. Wagenstein lived through fascism, communism, mafia capitalism and Bulgaria’s slow approximation towards Europe.

He is the guy who was sentenced to death for being part of the resistance against the Nazis, in fascist Bulgaria. Later, he hid political messages in his films. He was slammed by conservatives for being a socialist, and by the communists for demanding reforms.

Angel Wagenstein even made a Science Fiction movie.

“I don’t know why I am alive”, Wagenstein says in the documentary, which won the Documentary Audience Award at the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles. Only the end of fascism, and what the Soviets called the liberation of Bulgaria in 1944, saved his life.

It was on September 9, 1944, when the Soviets overthrew Bulgaria’s new anti-fascist government, which had been put in place only a week earlier. “How ever you judge that day. It was a new page in the history of Bulgaria”, Wagenstein says. Two decades later, he wanted to go the Czech way, which was “socialism with a human face”. It would not happen.

Just before the collapse of communism in 1989, Wagenstein demanded the implementation of Michail Gorbachev’s course of ‘Glasnost’, ‘Perestroika’, and democracy in Bulgaria. He was rebuffed again, and shouted at by hardliners in what communist Bulgaria called its “parliament”. Dictator Zhivkov wanted to “wait and see” first.

Angel Wagenstein, a living history book, just turned 95.

Angel Raymond Wagenstein’s voice reached millions, mostly through his films. He managed to fool the Bulgarian censors, by adding hidden political messages which were subtle and hard to remove, since they were built into historical facts the films were based on. But, in some cases, those messages were too obvious for the regime in Sofia.

‘Stars’, one of Wagenstein’s movies, released in 1959, tells the true story of Greek Jews, who were not saved, as opposed to the Jews in Bulgaria. On freight trains, they were transported through Bulgaria, on the way to concentration camps. ‘Stars’ got the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. But for the Bulgarian censors, it carried too much truth. Therefore, ‘Stars’ was banned in Bulgaria.

His 1958 film ‘Rebro Adamovo’ takes a look at the plight of Muslim women in Bulgaria, which was almost a taboo back then. Wagenstein’s subject choice also shows that his justice awareness was not limited to his own, the Bulgarian Jews. Other minorities, and ultimately all Bulgarians, were on his mind too.

In ‘Rebro Adamovo’ Wagenstein looked into the plight of Muslim women.

‘Art is a Weapon’ is an art weapon itself. Andrea Simon’s film introduces Angel Wagenstein to an international audience, including Bulgarians, both young and old. The latter might see their country with different eyes, after watching the documentary.

Andrea Simon, who is in Sofia right now, but who will go back to New York today, told The Sofia Globe her film was in the festival rotation right now. Afterwards she wanted ‘Art is a Weapon’ to be shown in alternative cinemas on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Sofia Globe highly recommends ‘Art is a Weapon’, a 90 minute documentary about Angel Wagenstein, and about Bulgaria, by Andrea Simon. The film’s website can be reached here.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe. He is German and lives in Sofia. Contact: imanuelmarcus (at) gmail.com