A Difficult Journey
Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) is a widower and a man suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home in a frequent state of confusion. Another resident reminds him that the two of them have concocted a plan. It’s one that sees him breaking out and on the road, as he hunts down a man who killed his family during the holocaust. But his unreliable memory and unclear plan make it a difficult journey. From that short description we see that their film deals with two very troubling issues—dementia and the Holocaust.
On the final night of sitting shiva (A Jewish mourning tradition) for his wife, Ruth, Zev is pulled aside by Max (Martin Landau), who hands him a fat envelope full of cash and detailed instructions for a plan Zev promised in more lucid times to carry out after his wife’s death. Max is confined to a wheelchair and permanently hooked up to an oxygen supply, but he has worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to trace four Germans living in North America under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander. He’s convinced that one of them is the Auschwitz prison block commander who murdered both Max’s and Zev’s families 70 years earlier, and up to now has evaded justice.
Plummer once again turns in a memorable performance as a man trying to deal with the confusion in his mind but is not always able to do so. He manages to leave the facility undetected out of and goes on a cross-continent journey using Max’s cheat sheet to guide him through his frequent lapses in clarity.
Director Atom Egoyan tries to keep the story moving forward, without getting bogged down in its implausibilities but there are just too many for him to be able to do so. I found that the film trivializes both dementia and the pain that Holocaust survivors have to deal with. In dealing with the Holocaust, remembering is very serious but as time passes, memory fades as the survivors die. Eve though we must never forget the horrors of the time, I am fairly certain that we will not remember and it is a moral imperative to do so. Remembering is seen as urgent here. Losing his wife, he is spurred on to this mission and while he does not remember all that he has to do, Max is there to make him remember.
For this reason, Max has written everything down in a long letter with detailed instructions. Zev leaves the hospice and begins a cross-country trip to seek out and kill a former Auschwitz block commandant, who is responsible for the murder of his family and who Max has learned is hiding under an assumed name. It turns out there are several Germans living under the same name and this takes the urgency out of the early part of the film as we recognize that generically, the right man can only be caught at the end, if at all. The film then becomes a road movie On a train, Zev chats amiably with a little boy who knows nothing about the Holocaust and we would think that something like this will goad him on with intensity—the fear of forgetting is very real but Zev does not catch that. He gets a gun and is helped at every stop by the logistical support of Max who has booked taxis and reserved hotel rooms in advance. There are false leads and an array of character actors including Bruno Ganz, Heinz Lieven and Jurgen Prochnow that we meet as Zev goes forward.
Plummer gives Zev a gentle authority and gentlemanly dignity, and though his hand trembles with age, his resolve can turn steely, as when he encounters a younger man (Dean Norris) who retains an admiration for the Third Reich.
Memory reminds us of who we love and who we hate. For Zev and Max, it all has been a long ride till retaliation. “If it is true that no vengeance is possible without memory, no grievances exist when they cannot be truly reminisced. They may be there, in the body, making their way — but the unawareness of oblivion may attribute to these ailments other roots, other sources”. Justice cannot be served without a clear memory of what happened.
Both Zev and Max know well their chance of evenness has evaporated with the passing of the years. There’s no justice without memory, and we must ask if one of these is subservient to the other? This film asks this question and it does so with intelligence that has characterized Egoyan’s films.
Zev is slowly but surely losing both his memory and his mind to a degree. There are four individuals with the stolen-name/identity that the Nazi official used to avoid trial and get refuge in the US. Four Rudy Kurlanders are detected, spread across the US and Canada. But only one of the two avengers can cross the country, and only one can do the planning. Here’s where the Golem motif comes in. Max, has no body for the enterprise, his has failed him a long time ago, while Zev, the able-bodied, has no mind to undertake the search, his is slowly forgetting where time goes. So one, Zev, becomes the other’s body while Max is the mind.