The Reluctant Interviewee: “I’m Just an Ordinary Guy”

“Who the hell would care about Oscar Berliner?” barks…Oscar Berliner.

In Nobody’s Business, Oscar Berliner, the reclusive father, has the spotlight turned on him by his filmmaker son Alan Berliner, and the results are a poignant study in the nature of memory.

Nobody’s Business is not new; it is an Emmy-winning independent (raw and experimental) documentary from 1996. I discovered it only recently, though, and felt compelled to share. I hope the review that follows may inspire you, too, to head to YouTube to screen Alan Berliner’s most personal film.

 Filmmaker Alan Berliner filming his father Oscar on a Florida beach, circa 1993

Filmmaker Alan Berliner filming his father Oscar on a Florida beach, circa 1993

End of Story

“I’m American.” That answer which my grandmother repeated each time I asked her about her—hence our—background—is echoed by Berliner’s father. He has no idea where his family is from, he says, and he does not care. Who cares?

HIs son the filmmaker cares, and persists in trying to get his father to come around to his way of thinking. After a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Berliner shows Oscar photographs of his ancestors, including a picture of the street where they lived.

Oscar: “What does it matter?”

Alan: “Your ancestors walked on that block.”

Oscar: “Really, what does it matter?”

Oscar: “I have no emotional response. They could be taken out of a story book. I don’t know them!”

But the son is as stubborn as his father, and he challenges, probes, pushes.

Didn’t his father ever ask his own parents about where they came from? Well, no: “I never asked. They never said.”

His father remains recalcitrant. “I’m American. Period, that’s it.”

 

Strange Relatives

Delving into his family history a little further, Berliner interviews cousins and other relatives about their heritage—and the result is no more informative than his conversations with his father.

“No one ever talked about it,” says one cousin.

“We’re strangers who share a common history,” says another.

When a distant cousin is enumerating how he and Alan Berliner are related, he ultimately concludes they are “sort of relatives and sort of strangers…strange relatives.”

Indeed, Oscar sums it up best: “The one thing we share is the one thing we all know nothing about.” Their family history.

And yet the faithfully seeking Alan Berliner travels to the small towns in Poland where his ancestors walked, and to Utah to uncover records of the past. He describes himself in his journal as “questing after people I didn't know, people I will never know. Hoping to breathe in…even one tiny molecule of air once upon a time exhaled by my ancestors that might still be floating around the Polish countryside. Looking to incorporate it into my body, my breath, my being.”

Alan Berliner is the poet, the compassionate descendant, urgently probing the past for connections and meaning.

 

“Next question.”

Berliner’s journals elucidate his process and travels and struggles to “see how I might tell the story of my father's life, amidst his stoical reluctance to talk about it.”

His father is indeed reluctant, even combative at times (something Berliner visually brings home through footage of boxing matches cut throughout his dialogue with his father), never fully giving himself over to the conversation.

Despite the combativeness of the conversation, though, he tells his son that “yes,” he is enjoying himself during the interview. He is lonely in his old age. He thinks such personal questions—about divorce and marriage and war—are best left for private conversations. Each time the son inches closer to eliciting a truth or a story, though, his father balks: “Next question.”

Oscar Berliner died in August 1996, just months after Nobody’s Business debuted. He had gotten to sit next to his (very nervous) son at the premiere at the New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall, and told a friend that it was the happiest night of his life.

“'‘Oscar Berliner & Son’ is now closed for business,” Alan wrote in his journal after his father’s funeral. “We’ve retired. He's moved out, I'm moving on. Like everything else about him, it's a sad melange of ironies and contradictions. But I loved him out loud and people heard, understood, respected, and seemingly—in turn, found a way to love him too.”

 

A Legacy of Love & Longing

As he gets closer to finishing the film’s editing, Berliner records in his journal:

“The film is beginning to touch a nerve. To reach a kind of truth about ‘identity.’ About some of the hidden places inside of ‘family.’ My father is so honest, so raw, so real. He's incredibly alive as a character. I just need to let him be himself.”

And kudos to Berliner for letting his father be just that.

I felt privileged to witness the interchanges between father and son. To recognize some of their push and pull from my own family experiences (I, like Alan Berliner, have always ascribed a larger meaning to the past, and strive to derive meaning from—and pay respect to—my ancestors’ lives). To be part of this intimate dance.

Watching Nobody’s Business, I felt like I was witnessing a meaningful journey for Alan Berliner, son and filmmaker.

“Somehow in the cauldron of my life’s process, this feels important—both as personal gesture, and as public example,” Berliner wrote of making the film. I hope you will watch it and perhaps discover some meaning for yourself along the way.

by dawn m. roode