Opening at the Hamptons International Film Festival this morning is Four Seasons Lodge, the debut documentary by longtime New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs. It quietly chronicles what may be the last summer at a humble Catskills vacation colony a group of elderly Holocaust survivors have been visiting for decades. If that sounds like a bummer, think again — it's more like a funny visit with your grandparents, multiplied by a dozen. Not that the dark stuff isn't there. But it can't match the appetite for living these old friends and lovers have acquired the hard way. And it's shot with a detached, pastoral beauty by a team led by the legendary Albert Maysles. Vulture spoke with Jacobs — who's currently looking for a distributor for the doc — before he leaves in November to cover China for the Times for a few years.
How did you shoot this film around your day job?
In the summer of 2006, when we shot, I took all my vacation days and scattered them around to make long weeks. And my camera guys were there all the time.
How did you hear about the Four Seasons Lounge?
The summer of 2005 I was doing this Times series on Catskills summer life. I have a place in Napanoch about fifteen minutes from this place. Toward the end of the series, someone said, "You should go down the road and meet these Holocaust survivors at this colony." I thought, That's bizarre. There on the lawn were these people. I was kind of expecting a very sad, kind of broken group of people, but they were so ebullient and really funny and they really liked to party, dancing until midnight or later. The piece ran very short after Labor Day. So when I found out that the next summer would be their last [because the colony would be sold], I decided to do something more, and that film was the only way to capture them.
Was it tough to convince them to do it?
It didn't take much — I just asked. They were thrilled that someone wanted to be around them and hear their stories.
Do you think it helped that you're a nice Jewish boy?
They probably knew I was, but I don't think they cared. Our sound guy wasn't Jewish. My family's from where they're from in Eastern Europe, but there are no Holocaust survivors in my immediate family.
Right from the start, they're all so goddamned cute. Did you worry about the tone being too cute?
They're not always so cute. They can get cranky, be very demanding. You see snippets of that. But these people did not survive for nothing. They know how to get what they need. I was trying to be careful about balancing the darkness with the levity. There was a lot of very dark stuff that could've been in the film. Who needs another depressing Holocaust movie?
There is some dark memory-dredging as the film goes along, but not as much as I thought there might be. Was that a choice?
It was. Actually, there was more Holocaust stuff that I took out — people were like, "Oh, this is depressing." I was trying to show them as vibrant living people in the here and now. I didn't want to make a movie where you feel sick toward the end when the lights come on. In the end, these people had lost their families and created this new family. They had this hunger for the little, simple things in life — that's what drew me to them.
Maybe the most moving relationship is between Olga and Genia, who have been virtually married themselves for as long as they were married to men, both long dead. Was that a gay relationship in the middle of this colony?
Who knows? It doesn't matter. They were clearly a very loving, attached relationship.
One of them allows that she had a very unhappy marriage.
They say of so many bad marriages, "Hitler was the matchmaker." That line gives me chills. A lot of couples were mismatched. You're 19, you've lost everyone, and you cling to the first person you find.
So how did you get Albert Maysles involved?
I called him and asked for a fifteen-minute pitch meeting, and he was like, "Sure." He was also their contemporary and Jewish, so he kind of related to them. I definitely wanted to do a kind of vérité, fly-on-the-wall thing, inspired by him, and he agreed that that was the way to go.
One parallel your doc has to one of the Maysles's most famous docs, Grey Gardens, is that nature plays the role of an unjudging, silent observer, marking time.
That to me is so obvious, I don't want to sound like I'm brilliant. The place is called Four Seasons Lodge, it's gorgeous, they're going through the final seasons. I didn't want to overplay it.
The movie also made me think about America as this paradise-like cradle and refuge, which is interesting in light of the whole current immigration debate.
Definitely. All these people were madly in love with America. Many spent a big chunk of their lives in refugee camps after the Holocaust. They could've gone anywhere, they could've gone to Israel, but they wanted to come to America, and the Catskills was this affordable place they could go every summer, these mostly blue-collar people.
At the end of the doc, which is full of great live kitschy Borscht Belt musicians, by the way, you memorialize some of the folks who died by the time the film was finished. Like Aron Adelson, whose wife maybe has the best line when she barks at him, "Aron, drink your Ensure." Have any more died since?
By some miracle, no one who's singled out in the film has died in the last few months. A few of them I talk to once a week or so, and others I'll call once month or two.
Are you like a grandson to them?
I've been called that. My grandparents are gone, and they remind me of my grandparents.