In Remember, a Canadian-German collaboration, director Atom Egoyan takes a new direction as far as subject matter, dealing with the few, elderly, remaining victims of the Holocaust – although there are some parallels to his earlier film on the Armenian genocide, Ararat. However, the movie keeps to Egoyan’s familiar themes: discrepancies in memory and understanding, and the elusive quality of truth, both of which are central to Remember. He is a director whose greatest talent is telling an engrossing story, and who loves to employ surprising and revealing plot twists, and Remember also makes excellent use of both those devices.
The central character is Zev Gutman, an elderly resident of a seniors’ facility, beautifully played by Christopher Plummer. I was fortunate enough to see Plummer on stage as Prospero in 2010; while his difficulty in remembering lines was sometimes evident, he was still captivating. Relieved of any such burden in a film, his performance was brilliant from start to finish. Plummer conveys Zev’s confusion and frustration perfectly, without failing to also capture his warm personality during his lucid moments.
As the movie opens, Zev is mourning his wife of many years, who has recently died. Although reasonably healthy physically, he is in the early stages of dementia and suffers memory lapses. His closest friend at the residence is Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), who apparently knew him from their mutual time at Auschwitz as boys. Max’s memory is intact, but he is physically limited and unable to leave the building.
The main story begins when Max reminds Zev of his promise: once his wife has died, he will do what he can to track down the Auschwitz guard who killed their respective families, and who, Max has discovered, immigrated to the United States under a false name. There are three men who might possibly be the culprit, and Zev must visit each to determine which is the real Nazi official. The exact purpose of the search is left unspoken, but Zev is clearly being sent out as an executioner in search of belated revenge. Zev accepts, mostly on faith, that he has made such a promise, and follows his friend’s instructions, letting Max’s sense of purpose take the place of his own.
Max provides Zev with money, train tickets, and a carefully written set of explicit, step by step instructions, designed to guide him even when his memory fails. What follows is something of a quest saga, in which Zev overcomes the frightening obstacles that even simple events such as train journeys have become for him. He makes his way doggedly, guided by Max’s written instructions, which he must refer to constantly, and by occasional phone calls to Max when he becomes overwhelmed or when circumstances change. We can all but feel Zev’s determination and fear, and alternately root for him to succeed, and hope he is somehow stopped – as when he follows instructions to purchase a handgun, or when he unwittingly walks into a dangerous encounter with a neo-Nazi.
As we follow Zev to the very end of his quest, the plot takes unexpected turns; different ways of interpreting the situation, and of interpreting characters’ real intentions, are suggested, and finally, as in many Egoyan films, the truth turns out to be surprising and quite different from what we had assumed. The film is well worth seeing, as much for the suspenseful plot as for Christopher Plummer’s performance.