Angel Wagenstein was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, on Oct. 17, 1922. He spent his childhood in France, where his Sephardic Jewish family had emigrated after the imprisonment of his father for political activities. Wagenstein was an avowed antifascist from a young age and led a Jewish antifascist resistance group in Sofia during WWII. For this, he was twice captured and imprisoned by fascist authorities and was even tortured and sentenced to death after his first successful escape. He survived to see Hitler’s demise and the rise of the postwar antifascist government in Bulgaria.
Wagenstein became the first international graduate of the famous VGIK film academy in Moscow in 1950. After leaving VGIK, he went on to a successful screenwriting career, penning scripts for more than 25 projects and directing the same number of documentaries for Bulgarian, Czech, West and East German film studios. The stories he told were intelligent and uncompromising, often offering subtle critique of the realities of the new regime and drawing from his personal experiences. His scripts were politically provocative but critically acclaimed, including three successful collaborations with the East German director Konrad Wolf, whom he met as a student in Moscow: Stars, The Little Prince and Goya. Stars drew on Wagenstein’s own dramatic and eventful biography, and it is widely considered one of the most important films about the Holocaust.
Wagenstein was a master of words, and the silences between words: the hidden, the unspoken. He often built music into a script from the start as with the Yiddish song of resistance, “S’brennt,” written by the poet Mordechai Gebirtig in his film Stars. In his other works, exquisitely layered soundscapes evoke Wagenstein’s memories of the polyglot environment into which he was born, and the many places, languages and musical traditions threaded through his life.
Throughout his film career, Angel Wagenstein worked with some of the best-known Bulgarian filmmakers, such as Zahari Zhandov, Anton Marinovich, Borislav Sharaliev and Ivan Nichev. He was also close to the much younger Miloš Forman—who, like Wagenstein, was an expert at subverting the great anonymous bureaucracy of censors who controlled the film industry before 1989, and pressed Wagenstein to write the deft political satire Aesop (1970, Bulgaria/ Czechoslovakia, dir. Rangel Vulchanov), set in Ancient Greece but clearly an attack on the cultural politics of the Soviet era. The film’s production was interrupted in summer 1968, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague, shutting down Václav Havel’s experiment in democracy.
In retrospect, the daringly allegorical Boris I (1985, dir. Borislav Sharaliev), offers a revisionist portrait of the founder of Bulgaria’s medieval empire that can also be read as testament to Wagenstein’s rage at the corruption of the communist leaders of his time. Wagenstein also scripted thrillers, such as The Law of the Sea (1958, dir. Vakim Vakimov) and the acclaimed 2-part TV Holocaust drama, Hotel Shanghai (1997, dir. Peter Patzak), an adaptation of Vicki Baum's novel that traces the path of Jewish people’s escape to Asia during and after the Sino-Japanese War of 1937.
Since the late 1990s, Wagenstein had also been a successful novelist, and his books were translated into several languages. Farewell, Shanghai (2004) and Isaac’s Torah (2000)—part of a trilogy dedicated to the fate of European Jews during WWII—were published in the US by Other Press, New York. Critics praised these books as “sweeping cinematic” (The Nation) and “a major contributions to WWII literature” (The Reporter).
Angel Wagenstein was a well-known intellectual and public figure in Bulgaria’s cultural and political scene throughout his life. After the dissolution of the socialist bloc in 1990, he served in Bulgaria’s first democratically elected Parliament for one-and-a-half terms, before leaving in protest of the financial corruption that was destroying the national economy.
Wagenstein was actively engaged with Shalom, the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria and has written often in newspapers and magazines about the hitherto marginalized Holocaust and deportations in the Balkans—the subject of Stars—which Maxim Benvenisti (longtime head of Shalom) calls “an inconvenient film,” anathema to the Bulgarian socialist state authorities, that impeded Wagenstein’s work for years.
Wagenstein, who lived in Sofia, was decorated with the state’s highest honors in both France and Bulgaria. He died on June 29, 2023, only few months after his 100th birthday.
Festivals & Awards:
|2022||Award for His Contribution to the Art of Cinema, Sofia International Film Festival|
|2004||Prix Jean Monnet for European Literature for Sbogom, Shanghai|
|2002||Alberto Benveniste Prize of the Sorbonne for Dalech Ot Toledo|
|1971||National Prize, Class 1, for Goya|
Bibliography & More:
Angel Wagenstein: Art Is a Weapon (2017, USA, dir. Andrea Simon)
Wagenstein, Angel. Sbogom, Shanghai (Farewell, Shanghai). Sofia: Colibri. 2004. (Published in English by Other Press, New York in 2007)
Wagenstein, Angel. Dalech Ot Toledo (transl. Far from Toledo). Sofia: Colibri. 2002.
Wagenstein, Angel. Petoknizhie Issakova (Isaac’s Torah). Sofia: Izdatelska kushta “Khristo Botev.” 2000. (Published in English by Other Press, New York in 2008)
|1998||Sled kraja na sveta (After the End of the World)|
|1996||Shanghai 1937 (Hotel Shanghai, TV mini series)|
|1986||Mglistyye berega (Misty Shores)|
|1985||Bordella (The Brothel)|
|1985||Boris I (The Conversion to Christianity & Discourse of Letters)|
|1980||Kontzert za fleyta i momiche (Flete Concerto and a Girl)|
|1976||Zvezdi v kosite, salzi v ochite (Stars in Her Hair, Tears in Her Eyes)|
|1976||Dopalnenie kam zakona za zashtita na darzhavata (Amendment to the Law for the Defence of the State)|
|1973||Frauen in Nordvietnam (Women in North Vietnam, TV)|
|1973||Eine Patrone und drei Körner Reis (One Cartridge and Three Grains of Rice, TV)|
|1966||Heimlichkeiten (Little Secrets)|
|1966||Der kleine Prinz (The Little Prince)|
|1964||Verigata (The Chain)|
|1964||Chronik eines Mordes (Story of a Murder)|
|1958||Rebro Adamovo (Adam’s Rib)|
|1958||Zakonat na moreto (The Law of the Sea)|
|1954||Septemvriytzi (The Heroes of September)|