And then my sister. She was pregnant. They put the gun to her pregnant belly. They said they would kill the baby inside her if my father did not spit. He could not… He did not spit.
Directed by Liev Schreiber, and based on (part of) Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, this film takes a cheerfully anarchic tour through a few different genres and forms; it’s an autobiography- comedy- road movie- Holocaust movie (or something.) And despite all this (presumably) ironic self-awareness (which is actually much more a feature of the book than the film) the film does manage to make moving, serious points about the Holocaust. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s never less than engaging.
It details Foer’s (played by Elijah Wood) efforts to trace his own Jewish-Russian roots in the Ukraine, and focuses around a journey he makes with his Russian guide Alex and Alex’s grandfather, a mad old anti-Semitic driver who thinks he’s blind, thus necessitating the use of a ‘seeing eye bitch’ called Sammy Davis Jr Jr. Eugene Hutz as Alex just about steals the show, particularly with his mangled English (‘…my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name..’) which is a delight to listen to. There ‘s a lot to like about the film. It has a distinct aesthetic, with some lovely, comic cinematography, and the performances are all strong. The Russian actors get all the best lines, though; Wood, as the nerdish Foer (‘..an anaemic straight-man caricature’, according to Michael Atkinson) is very much in the shade.
But despite strong cinematography and performances and everything else, this a writer’s film, unsurprisingly given the source material. It is ambitious in its handling of genre; to use comedy to attempt to address themes around the Holocaust is, obviously, fraught with difficulty (not entirely unprecedented though – Robert Benigni’s superb Life is Beautiful did something similar in 1997, although Roger Ebert points out that even that film received criticism for apparently making light of the Holocaust.) The comedy in Schreiber’s film is joyous; Alex’s obsession with and clumsy appropriation of all things American and pop-culture (hip-hop, Michael Jackson, ‘negroes’ – they are ‘premium people’ apparently – and so on) is obviously rooted in a familiar representation of Russian youth, whilst Foer’s nerdish, obsessive, vegetarian, dog-phobic writer is just as rooted in another stereotype, but despite this familiarity, the characters are wonderfully sympathetic and engaging.
The narrative gives the film its backbone, though. It is essentially a road movie – the three main characters are off to find a lady who helped Foer’s grandfather survive the Holocaust. She lives in a village called Trachimbrod, and the hunt for this village – and the ‘finding’ of it – are what ultimately turns the story away from comedy. This is actually not entirely successful; it’s a fiendishly difficult tonal shift to handle (Stella Papamichael writes that ‘Schreiber’s most difficult task comes at this halfway point when he switches gears from comedy to drama’) and although it is handled well, the film’s engagement with Holocaust themes never provokes the reaction that it could, simply because the first half of the film hasn’t been doing the work of building up to such a reaction. As such, we get a smaller, less ambitious pay-off, but that’s fine; it’s moving and effective, albeit somewhat too ‘tidy’ at the end.
Typically of the road movie, the real journey is internal, and this is where the actual surprise of the movie is. The journey at the heart of the road movie is always a metaphor for the change and development of one or more of the characters, and obviously the most obvious example of this is in Foer himself, who learns about his own roots and who seems to open up a little (he is friendlier with Alex at the end and has somehow overcome his fear of dogs, giving Sammy Davis Jr Jr an affectionate kiss at the end.) But he, it turns out, is not the main character. Foer’s extreme uptightness, for all his quirkiness (he collects things as he goes along, sealing things like potatoes and handfuls of soil in plastic bags to add to his ‘collection’), makes him hard to penetrate, and Wood’s performance, strangely reminiscent of his portrayal of Kevin, the psychotic cannibal from Sin City (yes, I know that seems an unlikely comparison) doesn’t help. Likewise, we might expect Alex to be the central character, the one who makes the all-important change reflected by the journey at the heart of the movie. After all, he is the one who delivers the voice-over which controls the delivery of the plot; it is he, it turns out, who writes the book upon which the film is based (there’s some postmodern self-aware jiggery-pokery here, of course.) But he is the character who changes the least, and as such he is more caricature than character; an absolutely delightful caricature, but not developed or rounded beyond that.
As it turns out, our attention should have been on the grandfather, the supposedly blind driver of the knackered Trabant which takes them to Trachimbrod (based on the real-life Trochenbrod.) As the story progresses, and we start to investigate the grandfather’s character with flashbacks to the scene of an execution of Jewish prisoners by Nazi soldiers, we realise that the story of Everything is Illuminated is actually his story; the journey into the past, a past which Alex is more or less ignorant of, and which Foer is only tangenitally connected to. The grandfather, however, lived it and is directly connected to what happened at Trachimbrod, and the audience is soon wondering about the nature of that connection; bluntly, which end of the gun was he on? His blatant anti-semitism (he is horrified to learn that Sammy Davis Jr, his favourite singer and, obviously, the inspiration for his beloved dog’s name, was Jewish) lead us to conclusions which are, of course, not necessarily correct. As Stella Papamichael goes on to point out, the grandfather ‘… takes the story into more wistful territory and ultimately provides the heart’ and at the end, it is his exit from the story which provides the actual emotional kick of the film.
A lovely film, then, and thank you to my ever-helpful student Adrian for recommending it (other students: what else should I be watching?) It offers a small-scale look at the effect of the Holocaust on people both directly involved and those born generations later; it is both very moving and extremely funny (it’s certainly the most quotable film I’ve seen in a while) and it provides an interesting comparison to more traditional Holocaust films like Schindler’s List.