Telling the stories of Johannes, István and Helena in a subjective and emotional perspective was seen as the best suitable way to connect with the audience we previously identified and to make justice to all of them. This is the general path we decided to go throughout the entire production: from the script to the style of illustrations and UI Design, and from the sound design and voice over to the animation. At the same time it was a big challenge because in some cases the Arolsen Archives could provide many detailed information, whereas in some others we could count on fragmented glimpses into those biographies. In this latter case we had to “guess” somehow, trying not to manipulate the story. We had to find the right balance also concerning the tone to use and the amount of information we wanted to convey. How “thrilling” should these stories be told? What could be left out in order not to become too didactic and remain on an emotional level?
The entire project was built around the films, they were the starting point. Concerning the website, it had to serve manifold functions: to host the three videos and to integrate these stories by providing detailed personal background and history grounded information, included educational material for school kids to use in the classroom; to host the app videos from the mobile exhibition with found relatives receiving the personal items back; to display a selection of personal items still in possession of the Arolsen Archives.
The dramaturgy in the films does not follow a chronological order, it’s more like a stream of consciousness. The protagonists tell their story from their perspective, from the age they are, be it young like for Johannes or old like for Istán and Helena. We wanted to emphasize that before the break of the war they had a normal and happy life made of friends, family, school, hobbies, dreams. And how dramatically they changed when the Nazis came to power. We follow them during the war, in the concentration camps and after the liberation, till the moment the personal items found their way back to their families – as a memory of when they were young.
The main question from the design point of view was how to make a movie that’s animated in a way that doesn’t feel light or childish. Firstly we decided to make it mainly black and white. It gave it a feeling of happening in the past but it also gave the project a proper gravity. Playing with the negative and positive space supported the general idea: to distinguish the difference between the moments of the happy life of the characters and the tragedy that came upon them during the war. Therefore, moments illustrated in camps are drawn on the black background, the shapes are rough and edgy and there is always high contrast which is making the viewer uncomfortable. It might seem strange at first, not wanting to make something pleasant for the viewer, but talking about topics like that should not be light and easy. We have to deal with the reality of how it was.
But the most important decision was to not make the characters up. They were based on actual people, their real stories and also their real appearance. Using the available photos we tried to keep the characters as close as possible to the reality and simultaneously have some sort of abstraction that gives the freedom to tell the stories like we did. It shows respect, but also it’s a way to honor the memory of real people and their real life. We kept in mind that those movies are going to be seen by families of people that went through this experience. It is also a sort of a testimonial for them.