The day the Germans entered their town in 1940, Henry Meyer’s mother and her family fled Norway for Sweden. They would not escape heartbreak, however.
Meyer’s mother fell for a local guy. But in those nerve-wracking days, when the Nazis were storming unimpeded across Europe, it was risky for him to be linked with a Jew.
“He hadn’t the courage enough to stand for it,” Meyer relates on the phone from his home in Stockholm. “In Sweden, someone had listed the Jews so they could easily be taken if the Germans came in.”
That painful experience turned out to be pivotal in a young woman’s life.
“It was, as it often is, a tragic love story,” says the veteran screenwriter and director. “She wasn’t accepted by the family of this man. And from that point she decided to never get involved with a non-Jewish person because of being rejected in a cruel way.”
Meyer drew on his mother’s experience for “Four Weeks in June,” a tale of cross-generation friendship and cross-border romance receiving its U.S. premiere at the opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 20. The filmmaker will be present.
“Four Weeks in June” centers on a troubled young woman (Swedish starlet Tuva Novotny) sentenced to a month of community service in a remote town for attacking her two-timing boyfriend. She develops an unexpected friendship with her upstairs neighbor, a Jewish woman (Danish actress Ghita Norby) in her 70s with an old secret.
Audiences shouldn’t view “Four Weeks in June” as literally based on the director’s mother, but the film — which explores the risks and rewards of leading with one’s heart — is plainly influenced by her emotional toll.
“Vulnerability is a very strong theme with me,” Meyer confides. “All the characters are very vulnerable in different ways. That is hard for an audience to take, to be involved with people who are so openly vulnerable. Maybe they want to see more successful people.”
Success is relative, of course. Over the course of three decades in the Swedish film industry, Meyer has established himself as a director of short films for children with a few features to his credit. He’s done OK, yet he’s shadowed by his father’s career as a not-terribly-successful salesman.
He also inherited an ambiguous relationship to Judaism from his father, who chose to have nothing to do with the Jewish community.
“Sometimes you are proud to be a Jew and sometimes you see that your relatives are putting some pressure on you, or are expecting something special from you. They expect you to behave in certain ways. It’s the same when you are brought up in upper-class families.”
Meyer concludes, “I have that outside feeling. But I don’t know if that’s my Jewish background or my personality.”
So the director was surprised, but gratified that representatives of various Jewish film festivals approached him after the debut of “Four Weeks in June” at the Berlin Film Festival.
“The Jewish theme,” Meyer acknowledges, “it’s not obvious. For a Swedish audience, or a non-Jewish audience, I don’t think people think much about it as a Jewish film at all.”
Incidentally, that doomed love affair was not the biggest tragedy to befall Meyer’s mother. After a year it seemed as though things had calmed down in Norway, so her family went back.
But they had misjudged the situation and her father, the grandfather Henry Meyer would never know, was arrested and executed.
“As a child, when one of your parents is affected by such big events, by persecution and wars, you are affected by it,” Meyer says. “This theme of not having fulfilled your dream is a strong theme in myself as a filmmaker.”
“Four Weeks in June” opens the S.F. Jewish Film Festival at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 20 at the Castro Theatre, and also screens 6 p.m. Saturday, July 29 at the Century in Mountain View, 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 2 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley and 6:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.