Actor Jesse Eisenberg, who most recently starred as Toby in “Fleishman Is In Trouble,” directed and stars in a new movie that he considers the kind of Holocaust film that he would have wanted to have seen.
“A Real Pain,” which stars Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin (“Succession”), recently sold at Sundance to Searchlight Pictures for 10 million dollars. In an interview with Vulture, Eisenberg said that he made the movie, about two cousins who go on a trip to Poland to honor their recently deceased Jewish grandmother, because he wanted to create a Holocaust movie that was “more real, less self-important, less sanctimonious, with a way in, that didn’t feel scary and off-putting but also with reverence and the correct stakes.”
The movie is Eisenberg’s second that he’s directed, after his 2022 film “When You Finish Saving the World,” about a relationship between a mother and son. “A Real Pain” was inspired in part by Eisenberg’s own visit to Poland to trace his family’s roots, as well as a play he wrote about it and an online ad he saw which advertised “Auschwitz Tours With Lunch.”
“It’s just the strange irony of being an upper-middle-class suburban American Jew traveling to Auschwitz and still needing to have some of the creature comforts that you have come to expect whilst traveling,” Eisenberg told Vanity Fair. “I thought, that’s such a fascinating, ironic, dramatic and also profound juxtaposition between trying to explore the horrors of your family history while also being able to sit first class on a train car and stay at the Radisson.”
Eisenberg has previously played Jewish resistance fighter and famed mime Marcel Marceau in “Resistance,” but in this film, he wanted to stray as far away as he could from the traditional Holocaust biopic.
In the movie, cousins David (Eisenberg) and Benji Kaplan (Culkin) join a tour led by James (Will Sharpe of “The White Lotus” and “Giri/Haji”) through Poland, to visit the Majdanek concentration camp and the home their grandmother grew up in. They’re joined by other tourists like Marcia, played by Jennifer Grey (“Dirty Dancing”), who described the movie as one about “connection.”
The heart of the movie is the relationship between the cousins, who are like oil and water. David is settled and reserved, Benji unmoored and free-spirited. Aside from their explosive dynamic, there’s also the tour itself, which can feel like a strange social experiment in which you’re reliving your family’s most painful trauma in the company of people you barely know.
The movie was filmed on location in Poland. Producer Ali Herting had connections to the team of the dark Auschwitz drama “The Zone of Interest,” and those connections helped them find the right people on the ground. Eisenberg filmed out of the house that his family fled in 1938 in Krasnystaw, Poland. “We actually had cameras inside [it] for this lovely shot of the two main characters departing this little town,” he said.
The title alludes to the dynamic between David and Benji, but also to the way we relate to intergenerational trauma and our own experience of grief and pain in the shadow of that of our Jewish descendants, who survived a kind of trauma and persecution that we can barely imagine.
“A Real Pain,” just like some delightful and poignant new short films like “Heritage Day” and “The Anne Frank Gift Shop,” is also a Holocaust comedy. The movie is meant to be darkly funny and profoundly human. It sounds exactly like the kind of movie that I, as the granddaughter of survivors, want to see more of.