VOD Review: Remember.
We look at one more Martin Landau film, Remember, a revenge tale featuring two elderly Holocaust survivors.
Martin Landau passed away in July and left a lengthy history of work. Many of his starring roles came early in his career and his later work was mostly in small parts, like Rounders. Towards the end of his career he had one more big role in Remember, a revenge story that is elevated by its frank discussions about the Holocaust, vengeance, and aging.
Remember is a difficult film in many ways. It is unflinching in its portrayal of its protagonists struggles with aging and dementia. It also pulls off the scab on festering wounds regarding the Holocaust, exploring many facets of the tragedy and how it continues to haunt those who suffered and who inflicted suffering on a massive scale.
Beside the themes, the film is structured in such a way that each scene reveals hidden information that changes how you view the story up to that point. Much like Memento, and perhaps too much like Memento, it is a film whose mystery can really only be experienced once. As such, it is very hard to discuss without spoiling it.
Zef Guttman is recently widowed, living in assisted care, and suffering from the late stages of dementia. Every time he falls asleep, no matter how briefly, he wakes up to a world where his wife Ruth is still alive and he is in his old home. Adding to his confusion, his best friend Max has written him a cryptic letter: it tells Zef of how he and Max survived the Holocaust and swore to kill the man who murdered their families in Auschwitz.
Max has discovered that the German officer took the fake name of Rudy Kurlander and escaped to North America. The only problem is that there are four Rudy Kurlanders who emigrated after the war! Only Zef can positively ID the man, so Max gives him a list of reminders to follow every day as he hunts the man who took everything away from them both.
One knock against this film, from the outset, is just how similar the plot is to Memento. The big narrative is of a man who can’t remember recent events who is being guided by a friend who you never quite trust. He has to write things down, even marking them on his own body. The narrative regularly throws some jujitsu at you that makes you doubt the protagonist, his friend, his enemies, and then back around to the first stop on the train. I’m still describing both movies.
I’m not saying you can’t use the unreliable narrator, or one who is unreliable because of memory loss, but you have to work twice as hard in order to pull it off in 2015. Love it or hate it, Chris Nolan reinvented the unreliable narrator just as effectively he reinvented the super hero movie. Remember tells a solid mystery thriller, but you’re always comparing it in the back of your mind, and it makes the reveals much less startling because Memento is such a template for how this story is told.
Remember relies heavily on building an emotional investment in our main character, Zef. Luckily, Christopher Plummer turns in one of the most emotionally engaging performances of his long and successful career. Plummer gives a striking portrayal of a man suffering from late stage dementia that is poignant and at times painful to watch, but never devolves into sentimentality or caricature. He also gives life to Zef as an independent man, able to think on his feet and react to his increasingly dangerous surroundings. Finally, we get a very human portrayal of Zef, especially when he sits down to play the piano, where his fingers remember their mastery better than his mind.
Helping the film along are two strong performances by Martin Landau and Jürgen Prochnow in supporting roles. Landau has a fierce and driven persona that keeps the tension high as he guides Zef on his mission. Prochnow, star of my all time favorite movie Das Boot, puts in a short but powerful appearance towards the end of the film as a ghost from Zef’s past. I didn’t expect him to turn up in this film, and was glad when he did.
One place where Remember falters is in the pacing. There are many strong characters and an engaging central plot, but the film often lapses into sequences where not much is happening or when conversations are drawn out too long and make you impatient for the next piece of the puzzle to reveal itself. I found myself wandering away from the couch about half-way through the movie, which is rarely a good sign. The final act speeds up and we get several big scenes right in a row, leading to an ending that is riveting. You just have to wait during the middle of the film for it to find its footing and get moving.
I also felt that the Holocaust symbolism was sometimes too obvious. One scene in particular, I said out loud that all you need now is an old box car train like they used to round up prisoners for the camps…and two second later an old box car train was shown. Moments like that made you feel like you knew what was coming a tad too often by using easily recognized icons, as if the director didn’t quite trust the audience to get the allusions without explicit aids. Luckily the film again gains the element of surprise in the final half hour.
Less Said the Better.
Remember may not be a film destined for a wide audience, given the unflinching look it gives into the lives of people ravaged by time and haunted by the memories of a tragedy that is still too terrible to bear. It is an excellent film for its attention to detail and its many fine performances. So few films focus on the lives of the elderly in a way that preserves their agency and treats them as more than just objects of sympathy. Remember does suffer from a slow build-up and some uneven pacing, but when it gets going it leads to a climax that is powerful and unexpected.