Mission impossible

Atom Egoyan on the mysteries of Remember.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Remember director Atom Egoyan:
Remember director Atom Egoyan: "Wagner is sort of embedded into the actual score at one point." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The last time I went to the restaurant in the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue was to meet Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth for their film 20,000 Days On Earth and Nick Cave stopped by for a greeting. Atom Egoyan's terrifically paced thriller Remember, written by Benjamin August, starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau with Bruno Ganz, Heinz Lieven, Dean Norris and Jürgen Prochnow is structured in the spirit of a cumulative tale. We spoke about the residual idea of The Sound Of Music, North By Northwest and Slavoj Žižek, meeting Son Of Saul director László Nemes in Sarajevo, Christopher Nolan's Memento and Leviticus.

Christopher Plummer as Zev Gutman
Christopher Plummer as Zev Gutman

Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice stages an entrancing battle around the power of remembrance and how humans cope by covering up, with Julianne Moore giving a mesmerising performance as a linguistics professor diagnosed at age 50 with a rare form of Alzheimer's disease. Atom's Remember opens in darkness with breathing sounds as if we were trapped in a deep well. Then Zev Gutman (Plummer) wakes up in his room in the nursing home, calling for his wife, Ruth, only to be told by the nurse that she had passed away a week ago. Zev suffers from dementia and this is the first of many awakenings. Landau, perfect as Max Rosenbaum, adds some of the mystery and intensity he displayed in North By Northwest as Leonard. Max has made arrangements to send Zev on a road trip to find someone they knew in Auschwitz. There are four Rudy Kurlanders on Max's checklist, who may or may not be what Zev is looking for.

Films by Atom Egoyan are always structured around a strong core and the conviction that it is very much worth our while to think about questions of memory, identity, trauma and time. The storytelling is intricate, the implications large, and the humor often wickedly unexpected. I suggested Atom have a look at Ludwig Tieck's 1797 literary fairy tale Eckbert The Fair, a story that mixes many of his favourite things.

Atom Egoyan's Remember: Zev (Christopher Plummer) with Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau)
Atom Egoyan's Remember: Zev (Christopher Plummer) with Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau)

Anne-Katrin Titze: North By Northwest came to mind for me again, watching Remember, just as it did for The Captive. And not only because of Martin Landau.

Atom Egoyan: Unlike Captive, I didn't write this script. I think it's embedded in the script. I feel there is a lot of Hitchcock in this film. This idea of a character being manipulated by a plan or a machine that's outside of his control or his apprehension. Certainly in the way that the music is working, the way that syncopated, jerky quality to the music really enforces the notion of him being a puppet. Those were all ideas that I wanted to embellish this story with. It's strange, I remember talking with him [Landau] about shooting North By Northwest when we worked together many years ago. But I can't say it was conscious or deliberate.

AKT: The film on one level deals with dementia. When I did a post-screening discussion for the Glen Campbell film [James Keach's documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me], his wife told me that he at times didn't remember who she was, only that he loved her. It is curious what people can remember and what not. Your film asks that too - how much choice is there to remember when the mind goes?

AE: There's two processes at play in the film. The process of dementia, something he is obviously experiencing, clouds his sense of the present. He can only react to things as they are. He has no short-term memory. Dementia is not what is affecting his suppressed memory - that is an entirely different process. In fact, the dementia is an impediment to Max's plan. Yet, it functions as one of the ideas of the film. It's dealing with historic memory loss. It is our entry into this feeling of being untethered of any way of contextualising our actions.

Dean Norris as John Kurlander
Dean Norris as John Kurlander

AKT: The layers make it possible to read it as metaphor and at the same time, due to Christopher Plummer's splendid performance, we get the sense that once he has his mission, his state of mind gets better. He knows what he has to do.

AE: Once again, I think, because there is a program and it gives him a sense of structure. I don't think that Max's plan was intended to be followed to a T. There is this chorus of people that he meets that are more than prepared to help him and extend themselves to him. That's something Max could not have anticipated. As I was saying the other night, he's been working for the Simon Wiesenthal Center all his life and attempted to do things the right way to charge those criminals through the judicial system.

AKT: You mentioned earlier how much you liked Son Of Saul. During a conversation I had with Géza Röhrig, we got to talk about Slavoj Žižek and I mentioned to Géza his comments about The Sound Of Music. That the visual representation of the cliché Nazis and Jews is reversed. The wholesome, lederhosen-wearing von Trapps.

AE: I don't know this essay but I know his work, of course. That's very interesting. There is this residual idea of Christopher Plummer from The Sound Of Music.

Zev Gutman:
Zev Gutman: "Before he actually plays the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde on piano."

AKT: I thought about Leviticus and the prohibition to write on the body and how this might have entered the film.

AE: That's right. That's also a reference to Memento, I suppose as well. This idea about engraving and defiling the body. In order for someone to suppress their memory, there has to be a degree of trauma…. With Christopher we created this whole narrative of his life. It's not in the film, it didn't need to be. He fell in love with the daughter of his piano teacher, perhaps?

AKT: You created an entire backstory?

AE: With Christopher. This is completely irrelevant to the film… except that it explains that there is trauma. This is the year that we have seen Son Of Saul - nobody would want to see a film about a Sonderkommando? It's an unlikely character. We are all human beings, we are all capable of anything.

AKT: There is some Wagner in the soundtrack. Wotan? Tristan And Isolde?

AE: It's Wotan's Farewell on the piano. And then of course in the score, as the car is moving toward that Bavarian gingerbread home, we have Siegfried's theme. Wagner is sort of embedded into the actual score at one point. Before he actually plays the Liebestod from Tristan And Isolde on piano.

Remember US poster at the Angelika Film Center
Remember US poster at the Angelika Film Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Fairy tales are also never far. I noticed the gingerbread house and at the very start, the breathing sounds felt as though they were coming deep from the inside of a well.

AE: Right. The camera is handheld, there's a sense of a human presence behind the camera's point of view. I strangely enough located that in Ruth's memory. Ruth's spirit watching over her husband. He is haunted by the spirit of Ruth.

AKT: I really like the details in the decor. The dirty glass of orange juice Bruno Ganz [as Rudy Kurlander #1] has in his hobby basement where everything is so mid-century German garish. It made sense that he would surround himself with these things.

AE: That was very carefully researched. I'm glad you got the humour of the piece. I think there is a garish humour to it all. My favourite moment to me is after he shoots the neo-Nazi and he goes back to his list and he writes down "not him". It's just such a lovely meticulous moment.

AKT: You are seeing Ivo van Hove's A View From The Bridge this afternoon?

AE: Yes. Have you seen his other work?

AKT: I have. The first one I saw was Hedda Gabler with Elizabeth Marvel.

AE: You saw it here at BAM?

AKT: No, it was at New York Theatre Workshop, many years ago. I remember it very well.

Coming up - Atom Egoyan and producer Robert Lantos in conversation on Remember at the Museum of Tolerance.

Remember opens in the US on March 11.

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