Interview – ‘Revenge: Our Dad The Nazi Killer’ documentary director Danny Ben-Moshe

Revenge: Our Dad The Nazi Killer is an observational feature length murder mystery documentary. When three Melbourne brothers, Jack, Jon and Sam, stumble on a family secret they become obsessed with uncovering the truth. 

Their father Boris, a Partisan and Holocaust survivor and WW11partisan, allegedly went from Melbourne where he had settled after the war, to Sydney in the 1950s to undertake a revenge killing against a Nazi. As the brothers delve into the past the evidence quickly builds, and they are confronted with some uncomfortable truths about their father. The investigation unexpectedly unearths a web of Nazi networks, covert Jewish vigilante groups, and multiple cases of Nazis who mysteriously died or disappeared in post-WWII Australia. 

All of this occurs in the context of Cold War intrigue and covers ups at the highest level of government. As the shocking truth is revealed REVENGE becomes a timeless story about living with trauma, the strength of family ties, and the challenge of “moving on”. As the brothers grapple with their new and deepening understanding of their father, viewers are left with a powerful question about the morality of revenge. 

With the documentary hitting select cinemas on December 7, courtesy of Bonsai Films, Nick L’Barrow sat down with director Danny Ben-Moshe to discuss how Boris’ story came to Danny, using a private investigator, and the moral conflicts of Boris’ actions.

Nick: Danny, it’s a pleasure to chat with you today. I watched this documentary last night and I found it truly riveting! How did the story of Boris first come to you?

Danny Ben-Moshe: Well, I often get asked how I find these stories, and I always explain that I don’t find them… they find me! And this was true in the case of Boris’ story and what ultimately became this Revenge documentary.

It was about 5 years ago, and it was Christmas Day. Not a big day for me because I’m Jewish. So, a regular day if you like. But it’s Australia, its summer, so we were down at the beach house. I was just reading a book and we had some friends over before heading to someone else’s barbeque. And they asked if I wanted to go along, and I really didn’t want to go along. One reason was because I was content just lying on the couch reading my book! And the other was because as a filmmaker, you kind of get into these situations where people say, “what have you done?” And then they start to pitch you films, and you politely have to explain that these are probably films that aren’t going to get made. And then you have the same conversation 1000 times.

Anyhow, as a social concession, I agreed to go along for an hour to this barbeque, which happened to be hosted by Jack, Boris’ son. And inevitably my fears were realised when the conversation began of, “what do you do?” And I’d recently made a documentary for SBS called Strictly Jewish, so I mentioned that, and a voice pipes up and says, “Hey! My car was in that film!” And there was a shot in that film of Jack’s car! Just coincidentally!

About a week later I got a phone call, and it was from Jack. And he says, “Hello, we met at the barbeque” And I think I’m going to get a film pitch. But he goes, “Listen, I’m a doctor, and I’ve got this story I want to research about my dad. You’re a filmmaker, so obviously you do research. Can I hire you to do research for me?” He wasn’t pitching me a film at all. I explained that I’m not a researcher for hire but tell me what the story is, and I’ll see if I can think of someone suitable. He then told me about how his dad passed away a few years before and he was sitting around with his older siblings and older cousin, and just started talking about this time their Dad, who was a Holocaust survivor, went to Sydney to undertake a revenge killing against a Nazi war criminal.

And I was like, “What?!” I asked if we could meet, and yeah, long story short I said to him that this would make a great documentary. And now five years later, hopefully it is!

Nick: I genuinely think it is! And I think one of the most interesting aspects about the documentary is that even though it’s a story about Boris, there is also this substory about the three brothers, and their relationship and inner conflicts about whether they actually want to find out whether their father did these killings. Was that element of the story something you anticipated would naturally unfold while you were making this film?

Danny Ben-Moshe: Not really. Although, very early on in my filmmaking career I attended a masterclass and the presenter said, “Before you start production, write your film treatment as tightly as possible. And then on day one, as soon as you turn your camera on, rip it up and let the story lead you.”

The challenge with this film is that it led us in so many directions and so many places. And then from a storytelling point of view, it was a matter of how we keep it all balanced. How do we keep the focus on Boris. And we spent a lot of time as a production team, and in the edit suite, trying to get that balance right because there was this human personal journey of course, which wasn’t the one we set out to tell. We set out to tell Boris’ story. But inevitably, it kind of grew and telling Boris’ story led to the manifestation of all these other plot line.

Nick: How much footage of Boris did you have access to? It was so interesting seeing the mixture of home video footage and the archival footage from the Holocaust Museum.

Danny Ben-Moshe: Yes, it was! And we were very fortunate that there’s been a distinct effort since the 1980s to document the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. This has gone on all around the world. So, we were very fortunate that there were two formal interviews, Jewish Holocaust Museum interviews with Boris, and also his brother. There were also ones with Boris’ wife that we didn’t include. That was our good fortune.

It would be hard to imagine the film without [the footage of] Boris. You know, had it not existed, would we have made the film? What would the film look like? Who knows?

The other thing that made it very fortunate was that Boris was a home video buff. And that was a hobby that Jack picked up from his dad. So, we were very blessed. It’s very hard, after five years, to have objectivity. I think there is a good balance of that content in the film. I very much from the outset, when I became aware that it existed, I always knew I wanted this to be a strong feature of the storytelling.

Nick: In regards to the storytelling, I want to talk about John Garvey. When John enters the film as the private investigator hired to find out more about Boris, I felt the documentary gained a lot of momentum. What was the collaboration like with John, not just as a subject of the documentary, but having his findings influence where the story would go?

Danny Ben-Moshe: Well, that was really kind of key because we didn’t know where it would go. We didn’t know, for example, we had this premise about a body found in the Parramatta River sometime in the mid to late 1950s.  We did a pre-production trip to the State Archives of New South Wales, and what we found was there was close to 30 bodies in the Parramatta River from the 1950s to ‘60s. But I’m a filmmaker, not an investigator, so I had no idea what to do with that.

So, that’s when we said, “Alright, there’s probably something here for an experienced detective to analyse and reach some conclusions.” And that’s what we end up seeing in the film.

Nick: Was John quite open to the process of being a subject of the documentary?

Danny Ben-Moshe: Yeah. Before I approach anyone to be in a documentary, I always give them a heads up, letting them know that it is a massive burden. It’s a burden in terms of time. It’s also a burden of you exposing yourself on camera. He was beyond generous with his time, and his thoughts, and access to his home office, coming to Melbourne, going to the locations.

I think we were very fortunate to end up with him, because I think he had a genuine interest in the story. And he genuinely grappled with the moral question. We don’t go into his moral journey, but his father, for example, was an ANZAC who fought the Nazi’s in North Africa. And there were many times he would try and understand that his father put his life on the line to fight for Australia, and this Australia’s letting these Nazi’s in, giving them a refuge. So, you know, he also had a bit of a personal stake and genuine intellectual curiosity in the story.

Nick: You mentioned the moral questions of the documentary, and I hope this question comes across how I intend it, but there’s interviews and conversations with Holocaust survivors throughout the documentary, and the word ‘justice’ is used quite a lot. And there a varying levels of discussion regarding whether justice has been served through Boris’ actions for the atrocities that occurred, and it’s quite a morally confronting quandary. Do you try and find a definitive answer for that when making a film that deals with this subject matter, or do you leave it to the audience to decide based on their interpretation of justice?

Danny Ben-Moshe: I think the latter because I think there is no definitive answer. I think everyone draws their own conclusions based on the facts. And I draw my conclusions based on the facts. I mean, it’s very hard, I think, for Australians to understand. We’re talking about a third of the people being wiped out. Let’s say something like 8 and half million Australian’s wiped out in a six-year period. And then the killers of those Australians go to a new country, the same one where the survivors of those massacres go, and these Holocaust survivors see the killers of their families in the street. They go to the authorities, and not only do the authorities do nothing, but the authorities have these Nazi’s on the government payroll. So, what do you do?

I spoke to a lot of survivors who saw Nazi’s here, and who are now in their 80s and 90s, who to this day wish they would have killed them, but they just couldn’t. Because they’re not killers, right? They’re survivors, not killers. But, what do you do if you have a situation where you are a trained and experience Nazi killer like Boris?

So, I think the audience will reach their own conclusion, like I reached my own conclusion. Everyone comes to it with their own perspective. You know, I’m Jewish. I’ve got no qualms about what Boris may have done. I think the actual disgrace is on the Australian government for doing what they did. But again, other people will have their own views.

Thank you very much to Danny Ben-Moshe for his time, and to Bonsai Films for organising the interview. Revenge: Our Dad The Nazi Killer is playing in limited cinemas from December 7.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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