UPDATE Friday noon: Remember opens today in NYC. In Los Angeles, it opens next Friday, March 18, at the Laemmle Royal.
EXCLUSIVE: Atom Egoyan’s Remember, a revenge drama you won’t easily forget, opens Friday in limited release. The film builds to its powerful climax on the strength of Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau’s extraordinary pairing as Auschwitz survivors who meet in a nursing home and plan the murder of a former guard from Auschwitz with two deadlines: One due to the diminishing number of Nazi officers and perpetrators remaining alive, and other because of the dementia that has made Plummer’s Zev Guttman constantly battle the growing fog and uncertainty that are slowly destroying his mental competence as Landau’s Max guides him on an improbable journey. The film, written by Benjamin August, includes similarly remarkable performances from Bruno Ganz, Jurgen Pruchnow, Heinz Lieven, Henry Cherny and Dean Norris.
Egoyan has investigated the subject of genocide previously, particularly in Ararat, his powerful 2002 film whose subject was the Ottoman extermination of between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915. And the subject of how individuals survive in the aftermath of tragedy has been a constant theme in such Egoyan films as The Sweet Hereafter (1997), about a horrific school bus accident and its impact on a small town, and Where The Truth Lies (2005), about buried secrets of the past and their impact on the present.
But Egoyan’s sensitive storytelling about grown-ups in extremis has been a hallmark of his films going back to the strange, aptly titled Exotica in 1994. Devil’s Knot, in 2013, examined the story of the West Memphis Three. A Canadian filmmaker of Armenian extraction, Egoyan has expanded his work into theater and opera as well as films. Deadline spoke with him by telephone from Toronto just before the opening of Remember, after screenings at film fests throughout the past year including TIFF and the Venice Film Festival, where the director won the Vittorio Veneto Film Festival Award.
DEADLINE: I know you’ve worked with Christopher Plummer previously — he was in the remarkable Ararat. He’s become one of the master actors of his, or any, generation. What made him right for Zev Guttman?
EGOYAN: This was one of those rare situations where you read a script and know there’s only one actor who can play that role. Chris doesn’t look like an old Jewish man, but over the course of the film, you believe he is. He brings so much history in terms of choices he’s made. Zev is a difficult challenge: He has no subtext because of his dementia, and subtext is what actors require. So this was a very demanding role. He could play nothing but the present tense.
DEADLINE: What kind of work did you do with him to prepare for the role?
EGOYAN: I knew he would have the brilliance, the clarity, the sense of urgency required to play Zev. But there had to be a lot of conversation to create Zev’s backstory. There’s no way the character can embark on this mission without understanding in detail who this person was, what his contact was with the Jewish community.
DEADLINE: Whereas Martin Landau’s Max is all focus on the goal, the trophy, which is to find and kill an Auschwitz guard now living under an alias somewhere in the U.S.
EGOYAN: These two actors are repositories of such incredible history. I thought of Martin in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of the great contemporary film performances. Hearing their stories of films they’d worked on was incredible, and they have this rapport. Plus Landau both met and played [the famed Nazi hunter] Simon Wiesenthal. So he brought to the film precious details of the character of Max. It was a rare opportunity to look at this legacy.
DEADLINE: Without giving anything away, we should point out that this is not — horrible word to use here — a typical Holocaust film. Any more so than the recent Oscar best foreign film winner from Hungary, Son of Saul. Remember is unlike any film about survivors I’ve ever seen.
EGOYAN: What I respond to — as a grandchild of survivors of a genocide that hasn’t been recognized — I can really respond to that feeling of rage. It’s something that is still living for these people. Max will not get satisfaction. For him it’s still about the magnitude of that loss. We cannot allow ourselves to become inured or callused to horror, to the ability of people to abstract other human beings if sanctioned by the State. We were telling this story at a time when we still have survivors and perpetrators in our midst, and we were very aware of that.
DEADLINE: How did you come upon this story?
EGOYAN: I usually write the material, but this script was unlike anything I’d read before. [Screeenwriter] Benjamin August spent time in Vietnam, his wife is Vietnamese; when he came back to America, he was appalled at how little Americans knew about their history.
DEADLINE: Would you say that gave you a mission?
EGOYAN: Sometimes you get the opportunity to make a film that actually is touching or explores a part of history that is uncharted. With Ararat, the transmission of trauma reverberates through four generations. How the pain of that is, and the echoes are, felt 100 years later. Similarly, this story is dealing with how memory can be denied and surpassed — and the corrosive effect that has on both the denier and the victim.
What many people are not aware of is that for certain survivors, time doesn’t heal. For survivors like Max, who feel that rage, it can never be healed. That pain will never go away.
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