Today is Remembrance Day when we honour the sacrifices of our soldiers who have fallen in foreign conflicts and pray “never again.” In a way it is also a test of our capacity for forgiveness. The Germany that was on the wrong side of two world wars has transformed into a trusted ally that is opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees. The country that was a savage oppressor has become a sought-after safe haven. If any historical act qualifies as unforgiveable, Hitler’s Holocaust, which a majority of Germans allowed to happen, surely qualifies. Apart from bringing the worst war criminals to justice, there has been a lot to forgive.
But what would you do if you were a Holocaust survivor whose family was murdered, and nearing life’s end with memory fading you were nonetheless able to find the man you held responsible? What could bring you peace? Those questions form the premise behind Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s latest film that is now in theatres. Unusually, Egoyan is not the writer, working instead from a script by Benjamin August.
Remember begins in a New York City nursing home with the elderly Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer) calling for his wife Ruth. Suffering from the onset of dementia and frequently confused, he has to be gently reminded that Ruth recently passed away. As the Jewish mourning period for her comes to a close, he is consoled by his son Charles (Henry Czerny) and another resident, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), who was also at Auschwitz. Zev has only to look at the number branded on his left arm to be reminded.
Max may be frail, wheelchair-bound and on oxygen, but he has a steely determination to find the SS concentration camp officer he tells Zev is responsible for murdering their families. That man, Otto Walisch, escaped justice and immigrated to North America under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander. Aided by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Max’s research has turned up four Rudy Kurlanders on the continent. Speaking privately to Zev, Max says he promised that after Ruth died he would seek out and kill the guilty one whom only he will be able to recognize. Max has already made travel and other arrangements for this vengeful mission. He hands Zev a long letter of detailed instructions to follow along with a wad of cash and a train ticket to Cleveland where the first Kurlander suspect on the list lives.
Zev accepts the assignment and manages to leaves the home without attracting attention. On the train he dozes off and wakes up confused but the letter in his jacket pocket is there to remind him. In Cleveland he buys an expensive Austrian Glock handgun before going to the address of the first Rudy Kurlander (played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz). Zev pulls the gun on him, demanding a closer inspection of his profile. This Kurlander admits he was a German solider during the war but has convincing proof he served with Rommel in North Africa and was never in Auschwitz.
Zev must go on to the second address, this time a nursing home in Ontario. Although his passport has expired he is improbably allowed to cross the border at Sault St. Marie on the strength of a drivers’ licence, with the gun simply covered by his jacket left on the seat. This too is a dead end as the Kurlander in question, a bedridden invalid, turns out to be a former Auschwitz prisoner for the crime of homosexuality. So Zev is quickly back stateside (very unlikely with an expired passport), resuming a quest that takes him to a rundown rural residence in Idaho. He waits for the owner, a state trooper (Dean Norris), to arrive only to learn that the old man Kurlander had died months earlier. Although frightened by the son’s snarling German shepherd named Eva (tip-off), he gets himself trapped inside a neo-Nazi den of mementos and has to shoot his way out.
Zev has been checking in occasionally with Max by telephone. Meanwhile worried son Charles has had the police trying to locate him, eventually tracking him down (though too late). Zev is obviously rattled but can’t give up with just one Rudy Kurlander left. That resolve brings him to Nevada and a beautiful log-style house near Tahoe where he aims to complete his mission. He’s welcomed in by a daughter who thinks he may be a wartime friend but warns him not to bring up Auschwitz. Zev (Hebrew for “wolf”) will not be deterred. When this grandfatherly Rudy (Jürgen Prochnow) appears the two go outside and begin speaking German as Zev recognizes his voice. “I remember” are the last words in a gobsmacking twist that’s a shocking tragedy to everyone except Max.
Egoyan has taken a lot of critical heat in recent years and Remember piles on a few too many implausibilities en route to a surprise ending. Still, as the mentally challenged avenging instrument of fatal justice, 85-year-old Plummer proves once again that he is Canada’s finest actor of stage and screen. Kudos as well to 87-year-old Martin Landau as Max, whose vengeance can only be satisfied by Zev.
This is a war remembrance story with no room for forgiveness. I wish it had left me with more than an incredulous shudder.