By Marc Shapiro, Baltimore-based freelance writer and photographer and the former managing editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times.
How does being the child of Holocaust survivors inspire someone to take an all-
encompassing journey through the fungal kingdom? For award-winning filmmaker and pioneering time-lapse photographer Louie Schwartzberg, it’s a deep, tangible connection.
“I learned about gratitude, that we’re grateful for everything little thing – lox and bagel, roof over the head,” Schwartzberg, 69, said. “That was a foundation for me becoming an environmentalist because environmental consciousness is all about appreciating the little things in life that go unnoticed, like the bees and pollination and the bottom of the food chain. … It’s a logical, natural progression to become an eco-warrior.”
It was a talk by renowned mycologist (someone who studies fungi) and entrepreneur Paul Stamets that piqued Schwartzberg’s interest and began a nearly decade-and-a-half filmmaking project. The result, “Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us,” debuted earlier this year and is screening around the country.
The film is a comprehensive cinematic foray into the mushroom world – animating and delving into the infinite underground mycelial network (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium) that plants use to communicate with each other, and exploring the culinary, medical, psychedelic and bioremediation uses of mushrooms. For fungophiles, the movie is a who’s who of the mushroom world. It features Stamets, New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan (who last year came out with a book on the science of psychedelics), amateur mycologists from a variety of disciplines and scientists from Johns Hopkins and New York universities who are studying psychedelic mushrooms.
“People think they’re going to go to see a film about mushrooms … but the film takes you to the deepest levels of spirituality, health care, bioremediation, environmental science,” Schwartzberg said. “The takeaway, which I hope I did at the end, is it’s all about being connected and that ecosystems flourish better than individuals.”
Schwartzberg was born in Brooklyn in 1950 to Polish immigrants Joseph and Eva. Eva spent several years in Auschwitz, while Joseph was mostly in the Lodz Ghetto, with some time at Auschwitz at the end of the war. They met at a relocation camp in Heidenheim, Germany, and got married two weeks later. Other survivors stood in as their parents.
While the Schwartzberg’s weren’t sure if they could have kids due to soup Eva was given in Auschwitz to make her sterile, Louie’s older sister, Bina Berge, was born in the Heidenheim camp. The family came to America in 1949.
“Ninety percent of Polish Jews died in the Holocaust, so [they were] one out of 10 on both sides, my mother and father,” Schwartzberg said. “Does that make me 1 out of 100? So, I’m proud of that.”
Schwartzberg grew up in what he called a “quasi-Orthodox environment” in a community of survivor families. “I kind of thought everybody’s parents were survivors growing up,”
He remembers his mother praying in Yiddish for steady employment, a top priority for the family, and a mentality that Schwartzberg said turned him into an overachiever.
“It has really given me a workaholic, obsessive attitude in a way, he said. “The most important thing is to have a steady income.”
But conversations with Schwartzberg always circle back to his deep gratitude, which set him on a course for environmentalism.
His parents were frugal growing up – the Schwartzberg family didn’t throw anything away that could be used or fixed, and that included food.
“I still have that guilt. … I have to finish everything that’s on my plate,” he said. “And you do it now not just because of the guilt, but because of being an environmentalist.”
But growing up with fearful parents who kept a lot of locks on the doors meant that Schwartzberg didn’t really experience nature – other than one family trip to the Catskills, until he went to UCLA. There, he picked up photography and started documenting Vietnam protests and making short documentaries.
He moved to Elk, a small town in Northern California and made films about carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the back to the land movement of women raising their kids in the country, which he made in 1974.
Another film project in 1975 would not only lead him to move back to Los Angeles to nurture his budding career, but would take him to Israel for the first time. Hollywood producers working on a film called “The Secret Life of Plants” who had heard about Schwartzberg’s time lapse photography wanted to send him to Calcutta to film the Bose Institute. But back then when the Indian city was under communist rule, filmmakers weren’t allowed to film in Calcutta, so he had to sneak in. This was Schwartzberg’s first trip out of the U.S. He brought with him a 16mm camera, flew to Calcutta by way of London, got the footage and then went to Israel to see family and ship the footage back to LA.
Although his footage got held up in Israel — since the film couldn’t be exposed to X-rays, officials quarantined it in a bomb-proof vault in case it was an explosive — Schwartzberg was able to visit family in Tel Aviv and Nahariyya.
“It was great, I loved it,” he said. “It’s nice to be in a place where everybody’s Jewish and you don’t have to worry.”
The experience showed Schwartzberg that filmmaking is a team effort, and he decided to move back to LA.
His storied career as a producer, director and cinematographer includes credits in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “Independence Day” and “Erin Brockovich,” among other blockbusters. After he shot Wilson Peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains for a Coors commercial in 1986, it became the company’s logo, and is on its Coors Light beer cans to this day.
Known as the godfather of time-lapse cinematography, he has been shooting time-lapse photography of flowers in his studio 24/7 continuously for more than 40 years, the only filmmaker in the world to do this, according to his bio. Twenty-four hours of filming produces one second of footage.
This mystifying style is part of what makes “Fantastic Fungi” so mesmerizing — viewers can see the woods come alive as mushrooms grow right before their eyes.
“I like asking the big questions. I like diving into things that are big and unexplained, and that’s why I do a lot of time-lapse in slow-mo, is to break the barriers of your world’s view,” he said. He even relates his time-lapse photography back to Judaism. “I keep on wanting to unveil the mystery. I think that’s part of your Jewish heritage. All the great thinkers were Jews because we question everything, right?”
“Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us” is screening at the Charles Theatre on Dec. 4. Visit fantasticfungi.com for tickets.