Let it be said / while in the midst of horror / we fed on beauty—and that, / my love, is what sustained us.
—Rita Dove, “Transit”
True to its name, Anna Justice’s 2011 film stayed in my memory long after I first saw it. In the years following my first viewing, the story would often return to me unbidden: flashes of dialogue and images from the beautiful, austere cinematography still fresh in my mind. “It’s intense—the kind of movie you watch once, every ten years or so,” I’ve often said when recommending the film to friends in the past. I don’t know why I have often felt the need to add such an arbitrary qualifier, considering that I’m not even sure I believe in it, myself. Remembrance is a film I want to return to, a film I have no wish to forget. But there’s something in the idea of monumented, sacred space—given time to exist and resonate without encroachment—that rings true for me when considering a film like this.
Remembrance (German: Die vorlerene Zeit, “The Lost Time”) is a difficult film, both in its subject matter and in the historical period that it encompasses. Spliced between two points in time—Brooklyn, 1976, and Poland, 1944—it follows the story of Hannah Silberstein, a young German Jew who escapes from a Nazi concentration camp with her lover, Tomasz Limanowski, a member of the Polish resistance. Despite the initial success of their escape, they become separated from each other, only for Hannah to discover nearly thirty years later that Tomasz is still alive.
There is much technical complexity (if only from a writing perspective) that goes into the delivery of a film of this nature—a love story set within the framework of such monstrous cruelty and hopelessness. The stakes are high against the overwhelming question of how to do justice to such a story: how to portray brutality without reducing it to spectacle, or a mere device for suspense.
Although the film’s inspiration draws from actual historical accounts of prisoners who escaped Nazi camps, Remembrance does not simply rely on historical precedent to sustain its emotional power. If anything, its tether to true stories only seems to increase its awareness of what can and cannot be covered within the scope of narrative. The film, then, expends its energies on focusing on its characters with an intense, yet compassionate, gaze—illustrating the pain of experience in a compelling and fully realized way.
There’s the question, too, of how a film may make a case for beauty without romanticizing horror—while still pushing toward something hopeful. Not necessarily a hope of resolution, but of some kind of redemption. Remembrance does this as it follows Hannah, closely, for the majority of her time on screen. We see her pressed to the limits of her physical and mental fortitude and strength: I’m haunted by memories that refuse to be forgotten, she says. I try to hide, but they always find me. We see the Holocaust re-presented not only as large-scale slaughter, but also as personal devastation. But we also see, through Hannah's eyes, how love may be transformed into both an act of rebellion and a sustaining force—each hedging toward costly salvation.
Saying, “You have to see it yourself” may seem like an easy way out, or perhaps even a cliché. But it is still a true statement. No amount of description, let alone on my part, can capture the intensity of this film’s focus, the grace of its movement, or the way it succeeds in finding beauty in spite of abject horror. Remembrance demands to be witnessed, not just spoken about. And, I am certain, it will stay with you.