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by Ralph Seliger
ALTHOUGH I UNDERSTAND the weariness that Holocaust-related themes trigger for many American Jews not of a certain age (and even for many who are), I remain riveted to the subject, largely because of my parents’ experience as World War II refugees who lost parents and numerous other relatives left behind. Growing up without grandparents, and with immigrant parents who never entirely adjusted culturally to their displacement from Europe, shaped my life in critical ways.
In 2009, I reviewed Death in Love, starring Jacqueline Bisset, a film heavily laden with aestheticized sadomasochistic imagery and themes. It resonated with me in its portrayal of the children of survivors, since (loosely speaking) this is my background. As I put it then: “A family victimized by the Holocaust may place special burdens on the children — high expectations for success, or overanxious concern for material security.... This may combine with other stresses of life to produce pathology. It also may spur a drive to succeed that facilitates high achievement.”
More specifically, the extreme social phobia manifested by the younger brother in Death in Love reminded me of my own less severe but similar malady, which hobbled rather than crippled me as a youngster. It was torturous for me to eat in social situations — a condition I didn’t mature out of until my early to mid-30s.
Remember, starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau, is the most recent film about contemporary events emanating from the Holocaust. It’s reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers and of Memento, which was also a suspenseful revenge film, released in 2001, with a central character plagued by severe memory loss.
In Remember, two elderly survivors of Auschwitz reside in an American nursing home in our time. Zev (Plummer), who has just been widowed, is so memory-impaired that whenever he awakens, even from a nap, he invariably calls out for his wife and has to be reminded of her death.
His friend Max (Landau) is wheelchair-bound and on portable oxygen, but mentally sharp. He dispatches Zev as his avenging angel to find and kill the Nazi guard responsible for murdering their families. There is some humor and genuine suspense in how Zev, despite his addled state, manages to find his way to a totally twisty conclusion. Although well acted and conceived, it’s not to be taken seriously as a statement on the Holocaust or the human condition.
In preparation for seeing Remember, I rediscovered Remembrance, a 2011 German film (Die Velorene Zeit, “the lost time”), directed by Anna Justice and scripted by Pam Katz. Remembrance is available as a DVD and for streaming, and is well worth a look. It poses an eternal question — can love, violently interrupted, rekindle decades later? — and counterposes two radically different worlds, the violence and chaos of World War II Poland, and a sedate, middle-class New York neighborhood thirty-two years after.
David Rasche (pronounced like the medieval Torah commentator Rashi) is an American actor with a significant body of credits. He appeared with Pam Katz on a post-screening panel at the Manhattan JCC where I saw the film in 2012. In Remembrance, he portrays Daniel Levine, the post-war American husband of the central character, Hannah (played by German actresses Dagmar Manzel and Alice Dwyer, the latter as her younger self). Hannah serendipitously discovers that her first love Tomasz (Mateusz Damięcki), is still alive.
Daniel is hosting a celebration at their Brooklyn apartment for a social science research grant he’s just won. He raises his glass in a toast, uttering “mazel tov,” with nary a single “l’khayim” voiced in return from his assembled friends and colleagues. This tiny, inauthentic detail exemplifies how the post-Holocaust story within the film pales compared to its grimly dramatic scenes of 1940s Poland.
The World War II story is very gripping, indeed. After falling in love in the concentration camp where the German-Jewish Hannah and the sensitive Polish underground fighter are imprisoned, they escape to his family’s horse farm. His mother is so terrified about hiding a Jew, and so opposed to her son marrying one, that she tries to have Hannah discovered “accidentally” by an SS officer billeted nearby, whom she invites in for coffee. The film is commendable for touching upon Polish anti-Semitism even as it depicts the double victimization of Poland by the Nazis and the Soviet domination that followed. (Upon “liberation,” Tomasz, his brother and sister-in-law — all supporters of the Polish Home Army in resistance to the Nazis — are sought out as enemies by the Soviets.)
Still, Remembrance is more about human emotion than history. Can the lovers of youth rekindle their passion in middle age, after having lived apart, each believing the other long dead? The ending teases us into using our imagination for the answer; I was among those in the audience who groaned. Is it enough to have asked the question?
One thing for certain is that those who survived the Holocaust — or, as in the case of my parents, narrowly escaped — did not emerge unscathed. Their children often didn’t either. As the recent Academy-Award winning depiction of Auschwitz, Son of Saul, indicates, filmmakers may continue to return to this catastrophic event in history and its aftermath, with varying degrees of artistry and success, for quite some time to come.
Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.