Heritage, opera and war

Don Rosenfeld on the Cook sisters and working with Emma Thompson and Cate Blanchett

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Don Rosenfeld on Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson: "They've never been in a movie together. I think they need to be."
Don Rosenfeld on Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson: "They've never been in a movie together. I think they need to be." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Over sea bass at Sette Mezzo on New York's Upper East Side, Don Rosenfeld, founder of Sovereign Films (with Andreas Roald) and the former head of Merchant Ivory Productions, discussed with me his upcoming projects and the twisting history behind filming Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day, which included Mike Nichols, Anjelica Huston, Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Susan Sarandon, Harold Pinter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and James Ivory.

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains Of The Day
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains Of The Day

Rosenfeld, who worked as producer on Howards End, The Remains Of The Day, and Richard Laxton's Effie Gray (starring and written by Emma Thompson), sees her teaming up with Cate Blanchett (who narrated Terrence Malick's fantastic Voyage Of Time: Life's Journey) on a film idea brought to him by theater producer Bryan Bantry that will be written by Isabelle Vincent.

Don Rosenfeld in our conversation told me about the Cook sisters, Ida (aka romance novelist Mary Burchell) and Louise, two unmarried opera loving civil service secretaries, who ended up being honored as Righteous among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel and posthumously became two of 27 to be named British Hero of the Holocaust.

Anne-Katrin Titze: One of the films you are planning to produce is about the Cook sisters.

Don Rosenfeld: I started producing it. It's going to come from a book because there is so much research to be done. No one knows all the details yet. A writer independently of me. I've optioned the book before it exists. It's underway. At John Murray in England and I think Knopf here. It doesn't really have a title yet but it's the story of the Cook sisters in those years, sort of '30 to '45. And that takes you through the whole war.

On Emma Thompson for Remains Of The Day: "You've got Hopkins and Thompson back again. And then she got nominated [for an Oscar]."
On Emma Thompson for Remains Of The Day: "You've got Hopkins and Thompson back again. And then she got nominated [for an Oscar]." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: From 1930 to 1945?

DR: Yes. It takes place during those 15 years. I doubt that we'll see them later or earlier. The key years, the dominant years are '34 to '39 where they are actively for five years helping people and attending the symphony and the opera all over Austria and Germany. Throughout the war! It's just crazy. I think two trips to America too, just before that on the boat. And they meet opera stars there. I mean they're real fans and they have a real love of music.

AKT: An extension of Mata Hari in a way?

DR: Yeah, to two spinsters.

AKT: Did you see the Hedy Lamarr documentary Bombshell?

DR: Not yet. I really want to see it. I love her.

AKT: It's all these fascinating stories of women during that time that we did not know. We had no idea what they were doing on the side. Because people didn't believe them, because, in Hedy Lamarr's case, they just wanted to watch her and not hear about her mind and her inventions.

DR: Right. That's so interesting.

AKT: In your case with the Cooks - Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson you want to play the sisters?

James Ivory directed Howards End and The Remains Of The Day
James Ivory directed Howards End and The Remains Of The Day Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DR: I think they would be great. They've never been in a movie together. I think they need to be.

AKT: They need to be!

DR: I've only briefly worked with Cate who did the voice-over for Voyage Of Time. But Emma, obviously, we go way back.

AKT: She also wrote the script for Effie Gray.

DR: And she was also in Effie [Gray], yeah. And Howards End. I pushed her for Remains Of The Day. The studio who controlled the domestic rights before we started, because they owned the book, we basically got the book from them. It was going to be like an 80 minute movie with Mike Nichols directing. They wanted Anjelica Huston to play the Emma part and Jonathan Pryce to play him. Because those were the two actors of the moment. Isn't that wild? I said, well, we didn't use Pinter's script. Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala] rewrote it. We were kind of stuck with them and they said "we don't want Emma Thompson." And we said, "you are crazy".

They had Jim Ivory meet Susan Sarandon. They thought she would be the next choice after Anjelica if we didn't like Anjelica. I like Anjelica, I'm just saying that that's not who we wanted for the part. It involved Jim - I remember the day we were meeting her. And she got to the meeting and they said she's gone to ABC Carpet and he followed her through a few floors while she said yes and no to them for the decorator and barely talked to him.

He said he could tell then that, no, he didn't want to work with her on Remains Of The Day and would never work with her on anything else again. It was one of those bizarre situations with actors. I don't know what happens. But we eventually got Emma. The best way to convince Columbia was when we said - think of it as a sequel. You've got Hopkins and Thompson back again. And then she got nominated. So of course they felt like they were geniuses. But they really didn't want her. I'm glad that we pushed for her because she's incredible in it.

On Cate Blanchett: "'I've only briefly worked with Cate who did the voice-over for Voyage Of Time."
On Cate Blanchett: "'I've only briefly worked with Cate who did the voice-over for Voyage Of Time." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And for the Cook sisters?

DR: It's not ready yet. She will write it. I mean I didn't ask her to write it. I mean, I'll ask her to be in it. I haven't yet because I want to give her the script. I always wait for the script to give an actor. Because I feel they can't really say anything yet. The script is being written alongside the research of the book.

AKT: Because there is more to the history that you don't know about?

DR: There is so much more. The book will come out before anybody writes the script. Before it comes out in the stores, the writer will have the book in hand.

AKT: Two sisters, because they love music so much get to help musicians out of Nazi Germany?

DR: Not really. They basically love music so much that they go to the height of culture in music in that era which would have been Vienna, Salzburg, Bayreuth, Berlin, even Munich. Hard to think about when you realise the cultural desecration of the Nazis. Their low regard for high culture and what evil thugs they were. Unthinkable what they did but in that process, I'm thinking of the second year of going there, they [the Cooks] watched the rise of Nazism.

Merchant Ivory Gold at New York's Quad Cinema in December
Merchant Ivory Gold at New York's Quad Cinema in December Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

They saw Kristallnacht on a trip. They said we got to do something. They'd start talking to musicians who were threatened. First of all they had to start wearing the stars. So many of the opera singers, musicians and directors and conductors were Jews. And composers. So they [the Cooks] saw that. They hadn't quite been deported to camps yet but by the late Thirties they started to watch that. But they just knew they had to help. The only way to get them to England which was the place they could help them most was to prove that they had funds. But the Germans under Hitler wouldn't let you get out any.

AKT: So what did they do?

DR: They started carrying things out that were valuable. Small paintings and jewels. They'd come with very little and fill their bags. And they were unlikely smugglers. They really were fairly humble spinsters.

AKT: I've read that the best spies, the best private detectives, are women around their sixties who are made up to look nondescript. People don't notice them and do not suspect them.

DR: The Cooks were really younger, but it was also their expertise. Their passion was the best [answer to the question] "Why are you here?" "Oh this is costume jewelry - we wear it every time to the opera." You know what I mean? They didn't check the diamonds. They would wear all this stuff. They'd come very cold on the plane, they didn't even bring coats so they could wear three or four fur coats back. Because they could sell them for them. So 29 people they got out that way.

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Howards End
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Howards End

AKT: 29 people?

DR: Yeah. And what they started in England was getting guarantees for people, hundreds of people. And other people operating out of Frankfurt and other cities would rely on their guarantees. So they get friends to sign guarantees.

AKT: How did you hear about them? Their operation?

DR: I heard about it from a fellow named Bryan Bantry who is a theatre producer and an old friend. A friend of 30 years, 40 years, whatever it is, a long time. He said "This reminds me of one of your movies. But you haven't made it yet."

AKT: That's a good way to say it.

DR: I became immediately fascinated with it. We've broken through to various archives and found things. There are also two files in the CIA and two files at MI6 that are not open. They're all redacted. So we're trying to get that material. One of the reasons could be that as people were being helped out of Germany often there were people who were double agents.

There were people who were actual Nazis who came here and we used their value somewhere after the war. In a kind of economic reorganisation and the Marshall Plan. So some of those files could have things like that. Some of the people they might have encountered. There's probably some sensitive thing there. They [the Cook sisters] supposedly burned their letters. This is what they claim. Which is strange too for an average person.

AKT: Yes, it is.

DR: But we have the other side of those letters, often. We just don't have their letter back and forth.

AKT: So there might be an entire treasure trove still out there?

DR: There might be. I mean, the two articles I did, 37 people have come forward so far.

AKT: So we'll see if more people come with information on the Cooks after seeing our conversation at Eye For Film.

DR: Yeah. It's pretty exciting. We love this film. I produce it with Andreas Roald at Sovereign Films. He's my producing partner on all these. He's an ex Norwegian TV star, turned producer. He is a vital complement to all I do. We really share everything. It's been amazing.

Merchant Ivory Gold - five films directed by James Ivory runs from December 23 through December 28 at the Quad Cinema in New York.

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