Film Review: Remember

Riveting, morally complex film about an aging Holocaust survivor attempting to track down the Nazi guard who destroyed his family in Auschwitz, with an award-worthy performance by Christopher Plummer.
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Many reviewers have been less than kind to Remember. It undoubtedly opens itself to criticism on several fronts, most pointedly its overly familiar subject matter—dementia, the Holocaust, revenge, and Nazi-chasing—coupled with its equally well-worn structure—in this instance, a story told within the framework of a cross-country-pursuit thriller. Alzheimer’s disease has driven such recent films as Amour, Still Alice and Away from Her, and trivialization, exploitation and simplification are frequently valid charges levelled at novels, plays or films that attempt to grapple with the Holocaust. Oversaturation and the lack of new insights can also be numbing.

Atom Egoyan’s film suffers from none of those issues. Contrary to what others have written, it is a wholly original, compelling movie with a top-notch cast headed by a brilliant Christopher Plummer. And while the narrative unfolds within the tired road-trip context, its gravitas is in no way diminished by the genre.

Egoyan, who has had a string of recent disappointments—Chloe, Devil’s Knot, The Captive—is on target with this one and very much at home with the morally complex and ambivalent material explored here, not unlike his deft handling of The Sweet Hereafter.

Based on a self-assured debut screenplay by Benjamin August, Remember recounts the story of octogenarian Zev Guttman, who has just lost his wife and is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, his memory lapses intermittent. He resides in a posh East Coast assisted-living facility (one surmises it’s in a New York suburb) and has reconnected with an old friend, Max (subtly played by Martin Landau), who is wheelchair-bound and cannot be far removed from his canister of oxygen. Both men lost their families at Auschwitz and, as Max implies, they had reached an agreement many years earlier that at the end of their lives, the stronger of the two would track down and kill Rudy Kurlander, the surviving Nazi who was responsible for the death of their loved ones. A particularly sadistic figure, Kurlander assumed a new identity in the post-war years and escaped to the West. The problem is that there are four Rudy Kurlanders scattered across North America.

With Max’s help—including a detailed set of instructions and an envelope full of money—Zev agrees to set out on a cross-continental journey—from Ohio to Idaho to Canada to California—to avenge their loss.When his absence is discovered, the authorities are notified, but somehow Zev slips through the cracks and eludes them. Indeed, he is viewed as such a harmless old man—virtually invisible—he’s even allowed to cross the border into Toronto without a passport. He also has no difficulty purchasing a gun. “I remember when I got my first Glock,” the store owner beams with pleasure as he hands it over to Zev. The vivid snippet shows how easy it is to obtain a gun, but more interestingly the widely held view of the aged as impotent.

But this is not any old senior. Zev is haunted by his Holocaust memories, faltering though they are and filtered through the prism of time and senility. What’s striking in this film—and highly effective—is the absence of flashbacks. All of Zev’s recollections are triggered by scenes and sounds in the present, from the howl of sirens, to trains gliding by across a flat landscape, to a shower head. In one bone-chilling scene, Zev is lying in the bath impassively staring at the showerhead, evoking all too horrifically the concentration camp “showers.” The tattooed numbers on his arm are also shocking—they always are and all the more so in this film. Zev studies them, at moments slightly puzzled as if he doesn’t quite remember what they are or where they came from.

Indeed, there are times when he seems confused and forgetful about his mission too, frequently checking Max’s notes to see what he should be doing next. His somewhat befuddled mental state adds an unexpected, thought-provoking layer, suggesting that the Nazi pursuit at this stage of the game is perhaps pointless when the handful of surviving players on both sides are ancient at best and may not fully be there anymore.

In many ways, Zev is functioning by rote. He is also able to sit down at the piano and fluently play complex pieces without so much as a page of sheet music. His remembered musical skill at the piano is not uncommon among Alzheimer’s patients. But in this context, his intuitive musical memory functions metaphorically as well.

The film also allows viewers to feel that precisely because there are few survivors and the Nazi atrocities could so easily be forgotten, there is every reason to track down the culprits, especially now. Time is of the essence. There is urgency. And while Remember is not an apologist for revenge—the film almost takes no position—Zev’s actions make emotional and arguably moral sense given the age of the players and the likelihood that no one would survive a protracted trial, assuming the Nazis were even caught and extradited.

What emerges most forcefully in this film is the long, refracted shadow cast by the Holocaust, informing the lives of three (maybe four) generations, including the most innocent American descendants of Nazis, who are truly ignorant of Grandpa’s wartime crimes (and beyond appalled when they find out) to the neo-Nazi son who celebrates his late dad’s service to the SS.

In the film’s most memorable and violent scene, Zev encounters one such deranged bastard, a retired Idaho state trooper (played by Dean Norris of “Breaking Bad”), living in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere, awash in Nazi memorabilia. His killer German shepherd is called Eva. Admittedly, that’s a tad much. Still, his obsessive hatred of Jews is terrifying.

Also deeply troubling is Zev’s visit with another Rudy Kurlander (Heinz Lieven), dying in a hospital bed. Zev soon learns he was not Kurlander the guard, but one of his victims, a non-Jewish homosexual, also bearing the branding on his forearm. In the four confrontations—and each one is singular—Zev embodies an array of emotions from reluctance to fear to doubt to hate to even pity.

The story has a final twist, and while narrative twists and turns may often feel contrived or evasive—and some critics see the film that way—given the surreal and almost incomprehensible historical events that serve as the backdrop of the story, it’s momentarily jarring but ultimately all too plausible. Remember offers a multi-levelled and nuanced interpretation.

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