Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan ventures into new territory — the Holocaust — in his latest film, Remember, which had its Canadian premiere at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival on September 12.
It’s apparently inspired by real-life events. After World War II, a handful of Jewish Holocaust survivors hunted down and murdered their Nazi tormentors in vigilante-style killings. And this is the morally-fraught terrain that Egoyan explores in his taut thriller.
It stars Christopher Plummer as Zev (Wolf) Goodman, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor who embarks on a road trip across the United States and Canada to avenge the murder of his family in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Goodman’s prey, Rudy Kolander, was an SS block leader in Auschwitz, and now he lives in the United States.
Goodman, an 89-year-old resident of a nursing home, suffers from dementia. He thinks his late wife, Ruth, is still alive. Nonetheless, fellow survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) sends him on a special mission, providing him with detailed written instructions on how to assassinate Kolander.
It’s a daunting challenge. There are four Kolanders on Rosenbaum’s list, so it will be left to Goodman’s judgment to determine which one is the real murderer. This may be a problematic assignment for a senior whose mental faculties have eroded, but Rosenbaum has confidence in Goodman.
The film, with an edgy screenplay by newcomer Benjamin August, is all about vengeance. Mycheal Danna’s eerie musical score stokes the tension.
Plummer is outstanding as Goodman, a man seared by tragedy and driven by revenge. Plummer’s German accent is plausible enough, and his wobbly gait makes one wonder whether Goodman is physically capable of carrying out his task successfully.
After stepping off a train in Cleveland, he goes to a gun shop, as per Rosenbaum’s plan, and purchases a Glock pistol, a powerful weapon which can knock an adversary off his feet. Since Goodman doesn’t know how to use a gun, he asks the store owner for instructions. Goodman’s request sows further doubts about his capabilities as an assassin.
Armed with the Glock, Goodman visits Kolander, who’s busy watching TV in his cluttered den. “Are you a Jew?” Kolander asks, going on to claim he didn’t know anything about Auschwitz until after the war. He claims he served under General Erwin Rommel in North Africa and says he’s proud of his service in the German army.
The tone of the film turns darker when Kolander launches into a discussion about Jews. “I didn’t care about Jews,” he says vaguely. But then he bares his fangs. Hitler was right to accuse Jews of having caused “problems” for Germany, he declares. Kolander, however, admits that the Nazis went too far and that the Holocaust was “shameful.”
Having concluded that Kolander is not the Nazi he’s looking for, Goodman continues his journey of discovery. In Canada, he meets the second Kolander, who’s sick and bedridden. Kolander II readily admits he was in Auschwitz, but as Goodman listens to the rest of his story, he realizes he’s on a wrong trail
On the third leg of his odyssey, Goodman goes to Boise, Idaho, only to learn that Kolander III has passed away. This information is conveyed to him by Kolander’s son, a state trooper (Dean Norris) who’s inherited his father’s collection of Nazi memorabilia. Acting on the assumption that Goodman was his father’s friend, he invites him into his basement sanctuary. The visit has a chilling effect on Goodman. He spies a swastika flag on a wall and a framed copy of the dreaded yellow Jewish star on a bookshelf.
As the son talks, he brandishes a first edition of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, places an SS uniform on his father’s bed and admits he’s “sentimental” about the collection.
Although Kolander III is not the person he’s seeking, Goodman faces a nasty surprise. Having learned that Goodman is Jewish, the son unleashes a torrent of expletives as his German Shepherd barks menacingly in another room. The situation quickly deteriorates, but Goodman has his wits about him. Norris, who previously appeared in the Netflix series Breaking Bad, turns in an excellent performance as the mercurial trooper.
In Reno, Nevada, Goodman prepares to meet the fourth Kolander. Kolander’s daughter, having invited Goodman into her rustic cottage, warns him that her father won’t talk about Auschwitz.
“I always knew you would find me,” says Kolander (Jurgen Prochnow) upon meeting Goodman.
Kolander heatedly denies he’s the murderer, but Goodman remains suspicious. Their verbal confrontation brings out new revelations that are totally at odds with the preceding narrative.
Egoyan, one of Canada’s finest directors, directs his first film based on a Jewish theme with a firm and knowing hand. Remember reminds us yet again that the Holocaust continues to elicit strong reactions from victims and perpetrators alike.