FOUR years ago, 83-year-old Thomas Beck was in Hungary filming a documentary about his life that included a wartime escape from the Nazis, when he made a startling discovery.
Beck learnt that his teenage sweetheart, Edith Grieman (nee Deudelbaum), who he last saw in a German prison camp in 1944, was still alive. What’s more, she was living in Melbourne only a short distance from his home.
As soon as Beck completed location filming on the documentary, The One That Got Away, he returned to Melbourne and contacted her.
“I found that she was well and was happily married,” explains Beck, who was starring in the film by London-based independent filmmakers Lindsay Pollock and Sam Lawlor that premieres this month at the Jewish International Film Festival.
The idea for the film was born about seven years ago, after Beck met Pollock’s Sydney-based mother, who he told of his dramatic wartime story, where he faced countless life and death situations with luck, wit and charisma.
Pollock was looking for a new film project and thought that Beck’s wartime escapades would make a classic, Hollywood-style story.
“We worked on the movie for three-and-a-half years with a very small budget,” explains Beck at his St Kilda East home.
“At first I was reluctant to do the film. I was not keen to dwell on the past, especially the unpleasant memories and open old wounds, but I went ahead. It was the first time that I had been back to Hungary since the war.”
Pollock says that Beck proved to be a natural actor, describing him as “a cheerful Hungarian”, who is still full of youthful vim and vigour and is fit enough to do 50 push-ups at a time.
Filming took place in Eastern Europe, retracing places from Beck’s youth where he was reunited with friends he had not seen for more than 60 years. It was one of these childhood friends, now living in Prague, who told Beck that Grieman was alive and living in Melbourne.
“When I told the directors about the news that I had found Edith, who I had been in love with in the camp, they decided to make that the focus of the film,” says Beck.
However, this added another four years to the film project.
In a recent interview, Pollock admitted that it was not an easy process making the film. “It was a huge headache,” he said.
Funding was the biggest problem, as the project was rejected by major television networks and film festivals, and it was only a donation from friends in British band Hot Chip of about $20,000 that allowed him to continue.
After three years of filming, the new angle of Grieman being found living in Melbourne stirred interest in the project from American giant HBO, which provided funding of about $150,000. “This was a huge amount for a documentary,” remarks Pollock.
During further location filming in Hungary and Slovakia, Beck emailed Grieman to seek her help in locating the camp where they had both been imprisoned. She replied with the sad news that her husband of 40 years, Saul Grieman, had died.
For the making of The One That Got Away, Beck travelled to Europe almost half-a-dozen times, and the film crew also came to Melbourne to interview him and Grieman.
His work in the documentary was completed last year. Beck – who has been married six times – and Grieman now live together in St Kilda East.
The soundtrack of The One That Got Away features original music from Hot Chip, the London-based electronic music band that is performing in Australia in January at the Falls Festival in Lorne, the Southbound Festival in Western Australia and Summerfielddayze on the Gold Coast.
The One That Got Away screens as part of the Jewish International Film Festival in Sydney on November 14 and in Melbourne on November 22 and 25.
REPORT by Danny Gocs
PHOTO of Edith Grieman and Thomas Beck by Peter Haskin