POW’s journey to forgiving the unforgivable in ‘The Railway Man’

Jonathan Teplitzky is the Jewish-Australian director of the new film “The Railway Man,” based on Eric Lomax’s searing, best-selling 1996 memoir of his incarceration and torture in a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp during World War II. The movie, like the book, also details Lomax’s excruciating decades of post-traumatic stress disorder — until, in a startling turn of events, he met and reconciled with his torturer. 

Speaking from his home in Sydney, the thoughtful Teplitzky described how the movie follows the British soldier’s capture in 1942 after the fall of Singapore, when Lomax is forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railroad — also known as the Death Railway — amid unbearable tropical heat, starvation rations and rampant cholera and dysentery.

When his captors discover that Lomax (Colin Firth), has built a radio to follow news of the war, he is beaten unconscious — but not before he hears the sound of his own bones breaking. But the worst is yet to come, as the POW is repeatedly thrashed, left in the heat in a tiny cage and then waterboarded while being interrogated by a Japanese officer, Takashi Nagase.

Teplitzky’s film, which hits theaters April 11, cuts back and forth in time between those three harrowing wartime years and the 1980s, when Lomax, newly married to his second wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), suffers screaming nightmares and flashbacks but refuses to speak of his wartime trauma. Then he chances to discover a newspaper clipping that reveals Nagase is still alive and living in Thailand, claiming to have turned his life around; Lomax eventually travels to confront his former torturer, intending to kill him until he discovers that his tormentor is deeply troubled and repentant about his deeds. Against the odds, Lomax forgives Nagase and the two men become close friends until the end of their lives.

Teplitzky was drawn to the story, in part, because he saw the film as a vehicle to publicize atrocities of World War II that remain far lesser-known than those of the Nazis, especially in Japan. In fact, at a screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, “Not one Japanese person in the audience had ever heard of the Thai-Burma railway,” Teplitzky said. “It seems to be buried in their history because it is so shameful, and there has been a reluctance for generations to acknowledge their role in all of this.

But there’s a more positive side to the movie for the director, too: “ ‘The Railway Man’ is a story about what human beings are capable of — the very worst but also the very best in human nature,” he said. “We have such a massive diet of revenge films and yet very rarely do they go to that other outer stratosphere of someone who, in a very meaningful and organic way, is able to forgive.”

Teplitzky noted that the therapist who most helped Lomax was the Holocaust survivor Helen Bamber of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture; through her own experiences as a teenager at Bergen-Belsen, Bamber intimately understood how the past can haunt the present.  

Director Jonathan Teplitzky.

“It was people like Helen who looked after [survivors’] memories of cannibalism, murder and the grotesque selection process that sent some to work and some to the gas chamber,” Lomax wrote in his memoir of her work after the war.

“My understanding is that in all the years that Helen worked with torture victims, Eric was the only one to meet and certainly to forgive his tormentor,” Teplitzky said.

The filmmaker also understands, on a personal level, how burdens of the past can impinge upon the present. Twelve years ago, his life partner, Amanda Lovejoy, a costume designer, died after a grueling two-year battle with breast cancer, leaving Teplitzky to raise their then-6-year-old son alone.

Over time, Teplitzky’s grief erupted into rage and erratic behavior; he channeled those feelings into the protagonist of his 2011 film, “Burning Man,” which follows a chef’s slash-and-burn lifestyle after the death of his wife.

As for Lomax — who ironically was a lifelong railway enthusiast — his post-traumatic stress was exacerbated after the war by the stiff-upper-lip expectations of his neighbors and employers.  

“He arrived back to the U.K. after his stay in the hospital, on a Thursday, and on Monday he was expected to be back at work at the post office,” Teplitzky said.  Lomax’s employers even went so far as to count his Friday absence as a day off from the job.

The former POW’s desire for revenge consumed him over the ensuing decades. When Teplitzky visited him with Firth, the director recalled, “Colin asked him, ‘What was your intention when you went to confront Nagase?’ And Eric locked into us with his incredible blue eyes and said, ‘In those first moments, my intention was to [garrote] the man.’ And the fact is, he started to torture Nagase until he realized that Nagase was quite repentant. Then there’s this other thing, which is purely my own speculation: that there was only one other person in the world whom Eric could talk to and who could relate to what had happened to him, and that was Nagase.”

Against his doctor’s orders, Lomax visited the “Railway Man” set in Thailand in his wheelchair, and had to be carried up a steep ravine where he had once carved away rock, by flickering torchlight, on the Hellfire Pass stretch of the Death Railway.

The most grueling scenes to film were the realistic waterboarding sequences (enacted by Jeremy Irvine, who plays the younger Lomax) that were shot in a dark, claustrophobic hut.  

“I’m sure it was physically uncomfortable for Jeremy at times, even though the action was very controlled,” Teplitzky said of those scenes. “And choosing how to depict the torture was definitely a challenge. I needed to do justice to what Eric had been through, for the power of his forgiveness at the end to have merit. On the other hand, if you make a film where the torture is so relentless, it becomes unwatchable, so we had to tread that very fine line of balancing those two factors.”

Firth said he met several times with Bamber to understand the psychology of torture survivors. “One of the inhumanities that was inflicted on Eric was that being tortured is exposing; it’s degrading, and you are exposed at your most desperate level,” Firth said in a telephone interview from New York. “He was screaming for his mother when he was being tortured, and those are the things that came up again when he screamed at night; he was going through that over and over again. There’s a grotesque intimacy about it.” 

Teplitzky was devastated when Lomax died, at 93, while the movie was in its editing process, but he doesn’t believe that the former POW would have gone to see the completed film.  

“Eric told me one story about how desperate he became at one point in captivity that he threw himself down a metal staircase, breaking both his legs, just so he could spend time in the hospital — and all his life whenever he saw a metal staircase, that had a horrific emotional and psychological effect on him,” Teplitzky said. “So certain things remained quite viscerally with him, and he didn’t need to revisit them.”