Long Memory: Christopher Plummer hunts a Nazi commandant in Atom Egoyan’s ‘Remember’

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Remember serves as both the title and the operative word for the new Atom Egoyan thriller from A24 in which a newly widowed nonagenarian, Christopher Plummer, conducts a cross-country vendetta on the Auschwitz commander he believes killed his family.

Making this “Mission: Impossible” extra impossible are several insurmountables which first-time screenwriter Benjamin August labors mightily to dwarf, starting with the age and advancing Alzheimer’s of Plummer’s Zev Guttman. Frequently, the character forgets what the question is and must consult a set of instructions to stay on track.

Even worse, Zev is pursuing a question without a definite answer: The Nazi he is hounding has immigrated to the U.S. under the name of a victim and is now one of the four Rudy Kurlanders living in Canada, Cleveland, Boise or Lake Tahoe. Who did it?

Fittingly enough—or, possibly, funnily enough—the letter of instructions that guides Zev from suspect to suspect comes from Martin Landau, who used to get his marching orders every week on television from a tape recording that would self-destruct in five seconds and lead into Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme.

Yes, director Egoyan concedes, you can read a little calculated irony in that casting. “That’s what’s so delightful about using these actors,” he says. “You’re importing their history to the picture and playing with it.” Landau is one of the four original members of the Impossible Missions Force still standing; he was the Brains between the Beauty (his real-life ex, Barbara Bain, 84) and the Brawn (Peter Lupis, 83), all bossed by team leader Dan Briggs (played the first season only by Steven Hill, 93).

Here Landau, 87, is a Nazi-chaser named Max. Hobbled by an oxygen tank and a wheelchair, he is forced to recruit the hardiest-looking specimen in his assisted-living facility to right an old wrong. After Zev sits shiva for his wife, Max slips him an envelope containing cash, a roadmap and some sleuthing results from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. By dawn, Zev is on the vengeance trail, weaving in and out of a mental fog but keeping Max’s letter as the constant that brings him back to lucidity.

“The letter becomes vital to him. Every time he reads it, an emotion is triggered. There is this idea he’s being reactivated by continually rereading the letter.”

It’s when Zev starts making notations on his own flesh that Remember betrays its heavy debt to Memento, Christopher Nolan’s time-jumbled suspenser in which a disoriented detective (Guy Pearce) used tattoos to remind him of his identity and his deadly mission. Senility is simply substituted here for short-term memory loss.

Egoyan acknowledges the strong Memento echo but feels it was more of an influence on his screenwriter. “Ben is in his early 30s, and that film was a huge influence for someone of his generation. Memento was very present here. It’s there in the script. The moment that you see Zev writing directions on his skin, you think of Memento.”

The fact all this improbability passes for plausibility is a testament to the enduring acting skill of Plummer, who, at 86, seems unfazed and untaxed by the heavy lifting.

“People who’ve seen the picture have called me very concerned about Chris’ health when all he is doing, actually, is acting,” Egoyan admits, more than a bit bemused. “In real life, he is acutely intelligent and aware, and so much of this performance is about him feeling vacant and not quite there. He does some astonishing work here.”

Granted, it sure beats grandfather roles, but Plummer had a specific reason for wanting to play Zev Guttman. “First and foremost,” Egoyan points out, “it was a character unlike any either of us had ever encountered in a play or film before. Zev is quite singular and unusual. On one level, what he’s doing is negotiating early-on Alzheimer’s, but, of course, what he’s actually negotiating is much more profound and much deeper. We were both very excited about the possibility of exploring it.”

Giving Zev a clean slate was a pretty tall order for director as well as actor. “The thing that’s particularly hard about this role is that it has no subtext. Usually when you’re working on a performance, you’re dealing with subtext, but in this case you’re just dealing with the immediate present. There’s this huge history Zev carries around with him, and we don’t have access to it at all. None of this is on the screen. The normal conversation you have with actors—how the character got this way, what his background must have been or might have been—didn’t happen here.

“My contribution to Chris’ performance was in making sure we extinguished any sense of subtext—any sense that there was anything being played but the moment—and making sure there was still enough kinetic energy in his observation of the present to make it compelling. It had to be very acute and heightened.”

The prospect of peopling a film with octogenarians was, in itself, a daunting Mission: Impossible for Egoyan, who had better casting luck on this continent than abroad.

The only German actor in Plummer and Landau’s age division who could be corralled for this film was Heinz Lieven, 83. He plays the gay Rudy Kurlander, and it proved familiar turf for him. (He previously played the Auschwitz war criminal that Sean Penn tracked to America in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 This Must Be the Place.)

“Heinz was quite definitely of that generation,” Egoyan underlines. “One of the most startling things that occurred at the press conference when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival was that Heinz as much as admitted he was a Hilter Youth.”

Otherwise, rounding up the usual name-brand German suspects was an arduous enterprise. “We were limited in terms of the German actors one would believe had been in America for a long time. That’s why Maximilian Schell would have been a wonderful choice, but he passed away in the early stages of our production.

“Right up until a week before the shoot, we were planning to use for the final encounter Gunter Lamprecht, a Berlin actor who had been in several of Fassbinder’s films, but he got ill and had to cancel. It really wasn’t an easy film to cast, and there weren’t that many actors to pick from. Some, like Hardy Kruger, just really didn’t want to play a role like that—a role that might wind up being his swan song.”

Eventually, Egoyan was obliged to compromise and cast his two crucial Rudy Kurlanders a decade younger than desired—with two 74-year-olds: Jürgen Prochnow, who captained Das Boot, and Bruno Ganz, a Swiss actor best known for his Hitler portrayal in Downfall. Disfiguring latex provided their icky aging.

“I think it interesting that the last story we tell about this generation of survivors and perpetrators is not a story of reconciliation but a story of rage,” the director notes. “Anger at this type of racial hatred is still so prevalent in people’s lives. That I found fascinating. Even though I’m not Jewish, I found a completely normal way of dealing with this subject. I’m Armenian, but I certainly understand about genocide.”

Indeed, Egoyan has made a film about his own tribe’s Holocaust—the 1915 Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turks in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. It was titled Ararat and won five of Canada’s top Genie Awards in 2002. Otherwise, there is nothing on Egoyan’s resume to suggest he would be the go-to guy for a Nazi-manhunt film.

“It has been an eclectic career,” he says with some pride about his 15 feature films. His debut opus, Next of Kin, picked up a major prize when it world-premiered at the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg in 1984, and he has been a festival favorite (or at least follower) ever since. His commercial breakthrough came with Exotica, a film with a strip-joint setting that won him the Grand Prix at Brussels.

The Sweet Hereafter, a mournful piece about a rural community dealing with a devastating school-bus tragedy, earned him Oscar nominations for his direction and screenplay. “It was the perfect project for my first adaptation,” he believes. “All of my scripts up to that point had been originals. When I read Russell Banks’ novel, it just opened a door for me and allowed me to go further in the films that followed.” 

Born in Cairo of Egyptian Armenians 55 years ago, he was named Atom as a means of marking the completion of Egypt’s first nuclear reactor. It’s a name that did not sit well for easy assimilation when the family settled in Victoria, British Columbia.

“My first name was the bane of my existence through my childhood,” he reveals rather gleefully now. “I hated it. I wanted to drop the A and just be Tom. In a small town on the west coast of Canada, anything that would stand out was so horrifying. Not only were we immigrants, nobody knew what Armenians were exactly.”

It was only when Egoyan began his film career that he learned to stop worrying and love the Atom. In show business, being the only one in your class is a good thing.

Remember opens on March 11 at New York's Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center.