Meet Alvaro Brechner, Director of Uruguay’s Latest Nazi-Hunting Adventure ‘Mr. Kaplan’

Alvaro Brechner’s second feature, Mr. Kaplan, chronicles an old man’s search for meaning in a truly novel way. Think Alexander Payne’s Nebraska meets Cervantes’ Don Quijote, starring a Jewish curmudgeon who fled Poland for Uruguay during World War II. *Sniffs* – I smell potential.

Shot entirely in Montevideo, Uruguay selected Mr. Kaplan as their 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Brechner’s first feature, Mal día para pescar (Bad Day to Go Fishing), premiered at Cannes Critic’s Week in 2009 and was Uruguay’s choice for the Oscars that year as well. Neither film made the cut, but that’s OK. With a nomination for Best Latin American Film from the Goya Awards earlier this year, the director’s future looks promising. Mr. Kaplan, a co-production between Baobab Films (Spain), Salado (Uruguay), Expresso Films (Uruguay), and Razor Film Produktion (Germany), has screened worldwide and secured international distribution in over 15 territories.

The film follows Jacobo Kaplan (played by Héctor Noguera), a 75 year-old man feeling all the feels for having lived an unmemorable life. Failing to come up with something by which to be remembered, he decides to indulge his imagination – ardently. He gives himself a mission: capture a rumored Nazi and hand him over to the authorities. He gets himself a Sancho Panza in the form of Contreras (played by Néstor Guzzini), a former cop who is also feeling all the feels of being lost in the world. Apart, they are nothing, but together they are Kaplan and Contreras: Nazi Hunters. Whoever came up with the ancient proverb “two wrongs don’t make a right” has yet to meet this duo.

Variety’syoung master of understated humor” credits two main sources for inspiring Mr. Kaplan. His grandfather, Jaime Brechner, who fled Poland for Uruguay in 1939 and El Salmo de Kaplan, a novel by Colombian author Marco Schwartz, in which a man makes himself a Nazi hunter. Brechner’s imagination colored in the rest. The Madrid-based director talked to us about Mr. Kaplan and how humanity is just a big misunderstanding.

Why did you become a filmmaker? 

I became a filmmaker because I loved watching films. When you are passionate about something, you want to be a part of it.

“I became a filmmaker because I loved watching films.”

Is there a movie or scene that has had a lasting effect on you?

One of my favorite scenes of all time is the opening sequence of Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow. It’s a seven-minute scene in the middle of a desolated highway. Two vagabonds (Gene Hackman and Al Pacino) stand alone, opposite one another, waiting for a lift. It’s a brilliant study of humankind, friendship, and human relationships.

I’m noticing a pattern with you and odd couples. They’re the core relationship in Mr. Kaplan and Bad Day to Go Fishing. Where does the tendency to zone in on them come from?

I do believe that fantasy and imagination are an integral part of our reality. Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to characters that possess a quixotic mentality: those whose longing for epic adventure strongly opposes the circumstances of their reality, or men who use their fertile imagination as a survival tool against a boring existence. The men in Mr. Kaplan are not friends. They have nothing in common. But they make a pact and choose to respect and trust each other. And that’s the only thing that matters. That understanding lets them live out the adventure they imagined.

How did you connect Schwartz’s El Salmo de Mr. Kaplan to your grandfather?

“It was about trying to create an homage to that generation of grandparents.”

First of all, I must say that it was a great privilege that Marco accepted and let me work from his book. He wrote a beautiful story, full of humanity and humor. The book just led me to my backstory – my family, my grandfather.

How much of your grandfather is in the film?

There are some biographical anecdotes. There’s a scene where 75 year-old Jacobo Kaplan decides to jump into a pool – without knowing how to swim – to prove to his friends that his “survival instinct” will keep him afloat. Mr. Kaplan is sure he’ll be able to swim. In real life, my grandfather sunk and had to be rescued by my 70 year-old grandmother.

Go grandma! Her husband seems like a handful. Un viejito testaduro.

He was. He was grumpy and adorable. Like a lot of his friends, he was also full of bravery, life, and human commitment. It is impossible for us [younger generations] to have a real idea of what their life experience was like. With Mr. Kaplan, the point wasn’t to include a bunch of anecdotes. It was about trying to create an homage to that generation of grandparents. Those who had to flee Europe for America. Those had to start their lives again, reinventing themselves.

The movie explores life and death without being depressing. How important is humor to you? How does it play into your process?

“I think humanity is basically a big misunderstanding.”

I think humanity is basically a big misunderstanding. The need to give certain [meaning] to our existence, to feel that we’re special, is, in a certain way, ridiculous. That’s what happens to Mr. Kaplan. He asks himself, “Why will anyone remember me after I’m gone?” He looks back and does not see anything extraordinary, anything memorable – I cannot think in those terms if it’s not in a humorous way. Anguish and anxiety are too big, especially because I do not have any answer to them. Humor helps accept that. It brings some relief to our absurd and ridiculous questions.

You screened Mr. Kaplan on five out of the seven continents (plus the Caribbean) within three months. I’m seriously jet-lagged from tracking the film. I’m curious – what is that experience like?

You always have the feeling that, in some way, you are living a kind of feverish dream. It’s the emotional wear that pushes you to your limit.

How do you ground yourself?

My detox is to get some weeks of rest from work and go back to all my sources. Re-watch and re-read all the films and books that led me, that made me understand and experience what storytelling could achieve. It’s rewarding to see that after all that time, Shakespeare, Rilke, Borges, Hammett, and Thompson are still there signaling the route.

The film was submitted to the Oscars. How was it different from 2009 when Bad Day to Go Fishing was chosen? Do you have a celebration tradition?

“I do think directors should try to avoid thinking too much about awards.”

It’s a great honor to have been the Uruguayan contender for the Oscar. But I really try to avoid thinking too much about it. Of course, it’s a great opportunity for the film to get extra attention. But I do think directors should try to avoid thinking too much about awards. The true accomplishment is having been able to make the film itself.

Ok. Marking you down for no celebration ritual. Any idea what’s up next for you?

At this moment I’m working on a few projects, hoping they don’t need to take four more years to be shot.

Mr. Kaplan premiered in Uruguay, where it played to sold out audiences for months. It will be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 30, 2015.