Atom Egoyan Tells a Tale of Two Genocides
The director Atom Egoyan was in a good mood. And why not? He was comfortably ensconced in a posh Los Angeles hotel the morning after his latest film, “Remember,” received an enthusiastic reception at a Museum of Tolerance screening.
But his buzz was soon tempered as we discussed the film and I told him: “I can’t write that. And no, I can’t write that, either.”
The difficulty is that “Remember” is more than a thriller about an older survivor hunting the Nazi who killed his family. It is a film that also offers a “Sixth Sense,” “I see dead people” surprise, and some of what Egoyan told me gave away the whole movie.
But, he claimed, he can’t help himself. “I get so excited about the conversations people have watching the movie,” he said. “You have the tough job of trying to present it in a way that reveals nothing.”
Actually, no. Describing the film is not at all difficult. What is hard, though, is figuring out how it got made in the first place.
Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer) lives in a nursing home. He suffers from dementia, and his wife passed away just a week ago. After the last shiva, his friend Max (Martin Landau) reminds him of a promise Zev made sometime in the past. When his wife died, Zev pledged he’d go out in search of, and kill, the sadistic Auschwitz guard who’d murdered their families. The guard had escaped and was living under the assumed identity of John Kurlander.
Max, confined to a wheel chair and on oxygen, can’t go himself. But, although weak of body, he’s strong of mind. And he’s written step-by-step instructions for Zev to follow when his memory fails. He’s also included a wad of cash for Zev’s use as he searches North America for the correct John Kurlander of several possibilities on Max’s list. There are adventures along the way: He’s almost caught at a Canadian border crossing; he runs into an anti-Semitic state trooper, and he murders someone.
The film is tautly written, and performances are excellent.
Still, you don’t have to be a Hollywood insider to figure out why “Remember” was not a likely candidate for the silver screen. Most obviously, it features old people. Not that old-people movies don’t occasionally break through — witness “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” — but typically those films are uplifting. This is a Holocaust movie.
There’s another, perhaps more subtle, factor at play. Egoyan, 55, was nominated for two Academy Awards — best adapted screenplay and best director — for one of his early films, “The Sweet Hereafter.” Many of his subsequent films did well, too, including “Chloe,” his 2009 erotic thriller.
But since then, well, not so much. His last two films, “The Captive” and “Devil’s Knot,” barely raised critical or financial blips. So logic — or at least my logic — would dictate that you look for a property with a greater chance of financial success.
Not Egoyan: “You have to go with the projects that are unique. I’ve always been drawn to projects that have some element of risk. Here in my hotel room in Los Angeles, I look out the window and I see billboards for films based on tried-and-true formulas. When you are seized by a project that is original, telling a story that hasn’t been told before, that is entertaining and provocative and will lead to a discussion, of course you will take that.”
But there are a couple of additional elements that led to Egoyan’s decision. One was timing: If he didn’t tell this story now, it might never be told. The Nazis and their hunters are dying, and the memory of their atrocities is fading.
Egoyan pointed to the trial of Reinhold Hanning, the SS sergeant on trial in Germany for complicity in the death of 170,000 people at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is 94, and all the witnesses are in their 90s as well. So this may be the last significant Nazi trial.
Timing also became a factor in the casting. Maximilian Schell (one of the stars of “Judgment at Nuremberg”) was hired to play a role, but he died before filming began. A veteran German actor took ill and was unable to take part.
But perhaps the most important reason for Egoyan tackling this project is his affinity for the material. He was born in Egypt of Armenian parents. He was named Atom in honor of the first nuclear power plant in that country. His sister’s birth name was Molecule.
“That was later changed to Eve, so we became Atom and Eve, so we stood out like a sore thumb,” he said.
In 1962, the rise of Arab nationalism in Egypt, where the Armenian community was targeted, forced his parents to leave. They ended up in Victoria, British Columbia, where, like many first-generation immigrants, Egoyan felt out of place.
“We were the only Armenian family there. I was always aware of being an outsider. I wanted nothing more than to assimilate. There was nothing that gave me a sense of pride [in being Armenian]. I wanted to avoid and escape from that.
“That changed when I went to university and met other Armenian students and became active in the movement to figure out what we are going to do with this history. I became consumed by that.”
Egoyan’s paternal grandparents were survivors of the genocide, a genocide that has never been acknowledged by the Ottoman Empire or Turkey. “That’s why this story [‘Remember’] had such a strong appeal to me,” Egoyan explained. “It was about the denial of justice. It is what Max feels. He’s at the end of his life, and he feels this sense of rage, this sense of injustice.”
He notes that, growing up, “I probably knew more about the Holocaust than the Armenian genocide.” But the knowledge of it “was buried inside me, because the sense of trauma was transmitted to me in some way. And that’s why I was drawn to this film.”
Curt Schleier writes about the entertainment industry for the Forward.