Artur Brauner, Holocaust Survivor and German Film Producer, Dies at 100

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Artur Brauner

The Polish-born Brauner survived the Nazis to become one of Germany's most successful post-war producers, with hits including Oscar-nominated 'Europa, Europa' and the 'Winnetou' franchise of German Westerns.

Artur Brauner, the Polish-born Holocaust survivor who became one of Germany's most successful and acclaimed movie moguls, has died. He was 100.

Brauner was a producer who made box office hits — the Winnetou Western franchise and soft-core comedies with titles such as Vampire Lesbians and Sex Olympics  — to finance serious movies about the Nazi dictatorship and the Shoah, including The White Rose (1982), Babij Jar (2003) and Europa Europa (1990), which won a Golden Globe and was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.

Brauner died early Sunday morning in Berlin following a short illness, his family confirmed to German media. “He died with a smile on his lips,” his niece Sharon Brauner told the German tabloid Bild. “He had a beautiful life.”

Born Abraham Brauner on Aug. 1, 1918, in Lodz, Poland, he credited the movies with saving his life.

In an interview with Die Zeit magazine, Brauner recalled a confrontation at the Bug River with a German soldier. He said a Gary Cooper film he saw as a youth gave him a flash of inspiration.

"In the film, three bandits try to force Cooper to hand over the map to a gold mine. He resists. They're all standing on the bank of a river, just as I was with the Nazi,” Brauner recalled. “When the bandit aims at Cooper, he rams his head into his stomach and shoves all three into the water."

Inspired by that scene, Brauner thrust the Nazi and his gun into the water. "I pulled up my trousers and ran until I couldn't see him anymore," he said. Brauner escaped into the woods, where he spent the next five years. Forty-nine of his relatives were killed in the concentration camps, but his parents and three of his four siblings managed to survive and emigrate to Israel.

After the war, Brauner moved to West Berlin, where he set up his film production company CCC (for Central Cinema Compagnie) in 1949, on the site of a former munitions factory. From the start, he took a two-track approach to filmmaking, producing light entertainment — what he himself called “tra la la” movies — alongside prize-winning dramas and films dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust.

Morituri, his second film as a producer, drew on his own experience during the war, and some of his greatest successes were with stories about life under tyranny, including The White Rose (1982) about the German anti-Nazi resistance group; and Agnieszka Holland's Angry Harvest (1985), set in Nazi-occupied Poland, and her 1990 drama Europa Europa, about a boy in Nazi Germany who hides his Jewish heritage by joining the Hitler Youth — both of which received Oscar nominations. Several of Brauner's own relatives were killed in the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Ukraine, the subject of his 2003 drama Babij Jar. Vittorio de Sica's Brauner-produced The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1970), set in Fascist Italy in 1930s, won the Berlin International Film Festival's Golden Bear and, in 1972, took home the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

In an interview with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2016, Brauner said that seeing a young Jewish boy murdered by the SS in the final days of World War II was what made him determined to fulfill his childhood dream and enter the film industry. "My intention was to produce a film about the innocent victims and the elimination of an entire people," he said.

But while his dramas won awards, it was sex and sensationalism that often paid the bills. In his long career, Brauner produced some 300 movies and TV dramas, many of them unabashedly commercial. After a former employee had a hit with Winnetou, a Western based on the novel by German author Karl May, Brauner snatched up the rights to the May novels still on the market and cranked out Winnetou sequels. He did the same with British crime author Edgar Wallace and with the Doctor Mabuse character, a super-criminal character created by French writer Norbert Jacques, which had been popular in the 1920s. Brauner even recruited Fritz Lang, director of the first Doctor Mabuse film (in 1922) for the 1960 reboot, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. He also convinced Lang to do two “Indian adventure” films: The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschnapur, in 1958-59.

At its peak year, in 1958, Brauner's CCC was Germany's most productive film studio, turning out 19 movies. Many of CCC's films were commercial hits at the time, but most are now forgotten. What remains are classics of post-war German cinema like The Rats (1955), It Happened in Broad Daylight (1958) and The Day the Rains Came (1959).

The cultural upheaval of the 1960s, and the booming television industry, hit Brauner's business hard. Unable to deliver the audiences needed to support his big-budget features, Brauner went down market, producing cheap skin flicks as a way to keep the lights on.

His passion for cinema, and for telling the story of the Shoah, never went away, however. One of his final films as a producer was 2006's The Last Train, the story of the final journey of a group of prisoners in a rail car in 1945 bound for Auschwitz.

Brauner received Germany's National Medal of Honor and, in 1990, the German Film Academy gave him its lifetime achievement award. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem has, since 2009, regularly screened 21 of Brauner's productions that deal in one way or another with the Shoah.

Brauner, who lived a life for the movies and for remembrance of the past, called the screenings “the crowning achievement of my life's work.”