(From left) Filmmaker Tom Weidlinger films a reenactment scene from his childhood, starring  Tibor Legát as his father and Lőrinc Pap as a 5-year-old Tom. (Photo/Andor Valentiny)
(From left) Filmmaker Tom Weidlinger films a reenactment scene from his childhood, starring Tibor Legát as his father and Lőrinc Pap as a 5-year-old Tom. (Photo/Andor Valentiny)

‘Restless Hungarian’: Filmmaker Tom Weidlinger’s hunt for his elusive father

In 2013, documentary filmmaker Tom Weidlinger set out to write his first book: a biography of his eminent but maddeningly elusive father. It took years to turn over all the rocks.

Published in 2019, “The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness and the American Dream” sought to uncover the truth about the charismatic Paul Weidlinger, a Hungarian-born structural engineer who helped build many of the great architectural works of the 20th century.

But the process didn’t fully exorcize Tom Weidlinger’s inquietude about the man who achieved so much professionally yet remained an enigma to his son and was emotionally inaccessible to his family, the filmmaker told J. Returning to the medium of film, he dove back into the subject of who his father really was — to his colleagues and employees; to his mother, who adored Paul but lost him to her schizophrenia; to his sister, who died by suicide at 30; and to himself, churning with the psychological residue of his childhood, chiefly repressed anger.

The film adaptation, “The Restless Hungarian” — more intimate and impressionistic than the book yet still incisive — will have its Bay Area premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Friday, July 29, at the Albany Twin theater. Tom Weidlinger, a longtime Berkeley resident who now lives in Angels Camp, Calaveras County, will discuss the film with J.’s digital editor, David A.M. Wilensky, during a post-screening Q&A.

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As the director narrates in the calm, thoughtful voice that sets the tone of his documentary inquiry, “What had been an objective tale … turned personal.”

Among the questions he pursues: why his father, who escaped Europe barely ahead of the Holocaust, never mentioned to his children they were Jewish. This detail was revealed by Tom’s Hungarian cousin, who shows him birth documents and, in one poignant scene, leads him to family gravestones in Budapest’s Jewish cemetery.

The revelation falls short of explaining Paul Weidlinger’s evolution from an upper-class Jewish Hungarian youth, to a leftist student-in-exile, to a disciple of modernist artists such as the Hungarian Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, to an immigrant engineer in La Paz, Bolivia, to a successful professional helming his own company in New York City. His departure from Europe in 1939 on a boat to Bolivia with several other Hungarian Jews showed awareness that not only their careers but also their lives were at risk as the fascist tide spread across the continent. But though all these experiences shaped his trajectory in life, neither his family nor the reality of antisemitism in Europe determined his identity.

Author and filmmaker Tom Weidlinger.(Photo/Dick Stein)
Author and filmmaker Tom Weidlinger. (Photo/Dick Stein)

A wealth of archival material and interviews with his father as well as those who knew him in Hungary, France, Bolivia and the U.S. document his perception of himself as a self-invented, creative intellectual, radically distanced from traditions — Jewish and otherwise. Not even the wartime suffering of his Hungarian family, of which he was aware (many family members died in Auschwitz), led him to discuss his Jewish legacy with his children or anyone else. Was this a flight or a rejection, a disguise or mere disinterest in his origins? Did his metamorphosis contribute to his constructing an edifice around his emotional self? And what, finally, was his grown son supposed to do with this discovery?

Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, who viewed the film at a private screening this spring, described “The Restless Hungarian” as “a riveting personal documentary.”

In a brief review, Insdorf, the author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” wrote, “Tom Weidlinger explores his family’s legacy of brilliance as well as trauma, unearthing private secrets that have universal resonance. It’s a compelling addition to the growing sub-genre of Holocaust cinema that focuses on adults who discover their Jewish ancestry — once hidden because of the Holocaust — late in life.”

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At the height of his success, Paul Weidlinger “created the strength behind the beauty” in skyscrapers, churches, museums and embassies. He collaborated with the artists Pablo Picasso, Isamu Noguchi and Jean Dubuffet on monuments and large sculptures. He also sought to make his mark as a naturalized American during the Cold War by designing silos for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. During this period of his career, which coincided with the filmmaker’s early childhood, he obtained contracts from the Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank that fed ideas to the U.S. Armed Forces. Rand visitors to the Weidlinger home included nuclear strategist Herman Kahn, believed to be a model for the title character of the 1964 satirical film “Dr. Strangelove.” In his film, Weidlinger recalls his impressions of the large and boisterous Kahn, as well as his father’s affinity with what he perceived as Kahn’s brilliance.

Political activist and former U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who also worked for Rand during that period, presents a dissenting view. In an interview, Ellsberg trounces Paul Weidlinger’s pretensions to have helped save the world from nuclear annihilation as an associate of the Rand Corporation’s group of ideologically driven engineers. The theory that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could arrive at detente by ensuring the capacity for “mutually assured destruction,” known by the acronym MAD, has been thoroughly debunked, Ellsberg asserts.

But “Mad” was also the nickname of Tom Weidlinger’s mother, Madeleine, and her mental illness was already a factor in the family’s spinning out of control. The frequent use of the homonyms “MAD” and “Mad” in adult conversation at home confused and terrified Tom as a child growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s.

To probe the feelings attached to his experience as Madeleine and Paul Weidlinger’s son, Tom recreates those memories dramatically, sometimes appearing in the film observing a child actor playing his younger self. These segments, enhanced by Tom’s thoughtful, introspective narration, explore the space between Paul Weidlinger’s public persona, his many accomplishments and his emotional impact on his family.

The hybrid technique, alternating documentary and dramatic recreations, makes the film Tom Weidlinger’s story as well. Bridging the distance between the apparent and the hidden in Paul Weidlinger’s life, “The Restless Hungarian” contextualizes his choices and resultant character traits. The long investigation yields profound results for the filmmaker-son, who arrives at a hard-won understanding that ascribing fault to our parents for what we suffered as their children fails to honor the infinite complexity of their lives – and our own.

“The Restless Hungarian” (106 minutes) screens at 3:05 p.m. Friday, July 29, at the Albany Twin, 1115 Solano Ave., Albany.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.