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March 18, 2016

I tend to be hard on films about the Holocaust, not because I’m opposed to what they try to accomplish, but because after so many years there’s very little new meat to pick off these old bones. It usually takes something as strong as Son of Saul to make me sit up and take much notice.

But treading that same ground is relatively recent, since serious Holocaust movies could be reliable Oscar-bait. Jump back forty years and you’ll find Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil: nearly-pulpy thrillers that use the Holocaust and its aftermath as a MacGuffin to drive their action forwards. That’s more the direction that Remember takes. Written by Fear Factor casting director Benjamin August — as influenced by M. Night Shyamalan — and directed by Atom Egoyan, it casts Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau in what feels like the darkest episode of Mission: Impossible (the series) ever.

Plummer plays Zev Gutman — “good man” — just after the death of his wife. We see him wake up in bed, wondering where Ruth is, and wandering out confused and afraid into the nursing home where someone at the desk sees him and gets him re-oriented. Zev is a pitiable old man, deep into his senility.

At the wake, Zev’s friend Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) pulls him aside, and reminds him about “what [he] promised to do as soon as Ruth was gone.” Max and Zev were both in Auschwitz, and Max spent the rest of his life working with Simon Wiesenthal tracking down Nazi war criminals. He and Zev are the only two left who can recognize the guard who took the name “Rudy Kurlander” to enter the United States. And since there will never be enough evidence to bring the guard to trial, they have to track him down and kill him themselves. Of course, as Max is wheelchair-bound, it falls to Zev and his dementia, backed by Max funding the operation from their nursing home.

This may seems, in a way, darkly comic. And it is comic, in a way. It’s also terrifying to see a man who can barely remember his own name buying a pistol, and then to remember he has that loaded gun bouncing around in his bag.

He does at least find a way to work around his failing memory. A note scrawled on his wrist — “READ LETTER” — recalls the reminder tattoos in Memento. And that, then, recalls the much darker connections between the Holocaust, tattoos, and memory: the ink that marks induction into the last gang anyone would want to join. The mind may fail, but the body bears forever on the forearm its mute testimony to what it once endured.

I admit that this does seem a bit irreverent at first, but as I sit with it longer I think I understand a bit of what August and Egoyan are trying to accomplish here. It’s one thing to tell the same story over and over again, just transposing it across to a different small town in the middle of Poland. Remembering what happened is an important part of not letting it happen again. But Remember wants us to remember that what happened is still happening.

The Holocaust is not just some terrible history from the past; it reaches forward and touches our lives today, as we see in the four Rudy Kurlanders that Zev meets. Some of us were victims. Some of us were unknowingly complicit, but are horrified to learn with what. And some of us, perversely, celebrate the horror.

It’s these lingering effects we must be aware of, whether we’re talking about the Holocaust, or slavery, or any other atrocity we might like to consign safely to history. As Faulkner told us, looking back at the Civil War from some seventy years’ distance, the past is not even past, and it will never be dead. We must, all of us, remember it in the present.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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