The film would be fine as an educational tool for Jewish children, she said, but she told Greene the end of the film was too dark, too depressing. Perhaps, she said, Greene could make it a little happier.
The 49-year-old Long Island filmmaker was stunned.
That's exactly the problem with too many contemporary depictions of the Holocaust, Greene said. Filmmakers have glossed over the horror, put too much of themselves into their projects, not allowed the victims to speak truthfully for themselves.
Oscar-winning films like "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" are valuable in educating the masses, he said, but they are too simplistic, too Hollywood. Greene might even call them "irresponsible."
"Directors don't like to disappoint their audiences," said Greene, the co-producer of the new "Witness: Voices From the Holocaust," which will air on May 1 on PBS. "Audiences don't want to pay eight or nine bucks to see a film that makes them sad, so we impose happy endings on events that really had no happy endings."
"Witness" was produced with the assistance of the Fortunoff Archives at Yale University, one of the country's first collections of firsthand accounts of the Holocaust.
But beyond an attempt to preserve the archives for future generations, something else is at work in "Witness." Greene and co-producer Shiva Kumar say firsthand narratives are needed to balance the scales against expensive Hollywood productions that do not truly represent the depravity of Hitler's "final solution."
Recent years have seen a strange morphing of the Holocaust with pop culture. As Jews try to preserve the stories of a dying generation, the Holocaust has become mainstream fodder for countless books, movies and a sometimes controversial Washington, D.C., museum.
Much like the legendary Titanic, Greene said that as the Holocaust is dissected by Hollywood, the line between what really happened and what people think happened slowly becomes blurry.
"The good news is that perhaps because of all this attention, the Holocaust will not be forgotten," Greene said. "The bad news is we don't know what will be remembered."
"Witness" reflects an ongoing discussion in Jewish circles about what the world should remember--or forget--about the Holocaust. On one side, supporters say anything raising Holocaust consciousness is a good thing. Others, like Greene and Kumar, say society must be careful in re-creating the past and not oversimplify in the rush to make an impact--much less a few bucks.
One of those people is Renee Hartman, whose Czech village was captured by the Nazis in 1939. Hartman and her deaf sister were sent by their parents to live in the country. By the time they returned the next year, the parents had been sent to Auschwitz and killed.
Unable to find shelter, Hartman and her sister turned themselves in and asked to join their parents. They ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they stayed for a year before being liberated in 1945, when Hartman was 11.
Hartman says she does not remember a joyous liberation as in "Life Is Beautiful"--she was too sick with typhus. She does not remember joke-cracking parents as in "Jakob the Liar." And she does not remember the end of her Holocaust turning from black-and-white to color as in "Schindler's List."
None of those films, she said, truly portrayed the Holocaust she lived through.
"On one level, I realize what I have seen in real life I will never be able to see in a movie, nor am I absolutely sure that I want to," said Hartman, now 66 and living in Washington. "Somehow the Holocaust does not seem to be able to lend itself to verisimilitude."
Hartman, Greene, and Kumar stressed their respect for filmmakers like Steven Spielberg who have the resources and creative know-how to make films like "Schindler's List." But they said Spielberg's truly valuable work lies not in "Schindler's List" but in the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation he helped found.
Since 1994, the Shoah Foundation has collected 50,000 unedited testimonies from Holocaust survivors. Officials say it would take more than 13 years to watch the entire collection.
Michael Berenbaum, a former president of the foundation and one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said there is room for both Hollywood depictions of the Holocaust and films like "Witness."
"The Holocaust was so large an event that there are other narratives that also tell a dimension of the story," Berenbaum said. "I respect (Greene's position), but I think it's an overgeneralization to speak of that as the only dimension."
Kumar worked with Greene on the film for four years and said the project eventually overtook him, causing him to become irritable and lose sleep to haunting nightmares. For Greene, whose grandmother lost 11 brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, and Kumar, the film was both a personal and a professional mission. But their sole objective, Kumar said, was to "balance the scales."
"To make the Holocaust some kind of icon, some kind of place to hang many of our collective hopes on, is a disservice," Kumar said. "These are all great films, but I hope this provides a balance, that's all."