The darkest chapter of the 20th century collides with a contemporary mission of revenge
In the 40 years that award-winning producer Robert Lantos of Serendipity Point Films has been reading scripts and making films, he has never had an experience like this: a script from a novice screenwriter lands on his desk, sent to him by Jeff Sagansky, former president of CBS Entertainment and co-president of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
When he read Benjamin August’s original screenplay Remember, a compelling thriller in which the darkest chapter of the 20th century collides with a contemporary mission of revenge, Lantos knew that this was a film he had to make.
“It’s dizzying. You have a front row seat to these extraordinary moments where these exceptional human beings get to embody other people. But you also see them as themselves and realize that they have their own mythology. They are, of course, consummate actors, and they are the history of everything they’ve played, and what they bring to the set is just so extraordinary. They know their own instrument, their own body so well, what they can do with it, and what they’re able to play with, and to see them play off of each other – I mean, these are amazing moments.”
Remember is an incredibly honest and moving emotional journey into the life of an old man who discovers that the Nazi guard who murdered his family some 70 years ago is living in America under an assumed identity. Despite the obvious challenges, Zev sets out on a mission to find the guilty man and deliver long-delayed justice with his own trembling hand.
What follows is a remarkable cross-continent road-trip with surprising consequences.
It took more than seventeen years for Benjamin August’s screenplay for Remember to begin its journey to the big screen.
When he adapted Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” into a high school play seventeen years before, the school athletic director came up to Mr. August and told him, “Stick to sports.”
Frankly, August says, the athletic director was probably right since it’s taken seventeen more years for him to have his first script produced.
August’s path to screenwriting has been untraditional. He wrote Remember while living in Vietnam where he was teaching English. He credits Vietnamese iced-coffee with sweetened condensed milk as the secret ingredient to his scripts.
Despite constantly being told he needs to move to Los Angeles, August currently resides in Hanoi with his family.
When Lantos read the screenplay, one actor’s face started to hover in Lantos’ mind.
“The hero is 90 years old. There are not a lot of actors in that age range that can carry a feature film on their shoulders. As I was reading the script I knew exactly who could and who should play it.”
Christopher Plummer had to play the lead role of Zev, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, skirting the edges of full blown dementia, a man who leaves the comfort and security of his assisted-living residence to find, and kill, the Nazi who murdered his family.
“The casting process on this film was unlike any other experience I’ve had on a movie,” recalled Ari Lantos, also producer on Remember. “It was a list of one for the role of Zev: Christopher Plummer. We probably wouldn’t have made the film if he didn’t want to do it.”
“Truth be told,” admitted screenwriter Benjamin August, “I had Christopher Plummer in my head the whole time I was writing.”
“I thought it was marvelous,” said Christopher Plummer, describing his initial reaction to the script sent to him by Lantos (“Thank god Robert got the material,” he added as an offside). “I thought it was original, shocking, intense and economically written. It wasn’t like a first draft. It was like the 30th draft. It was a very unusual script and an extraordinary role – totally different from what I’ve ever done before. So, I took the bait.”
Robert Lantos had no interest in revisiting the subjects of the Holocaust and dementia because he had already dealt with them in previous films. And yet, Remember was something very different. It is an intimate story, set in the present, but triggered by an event 70 years ago. “The macro events from the past, permeating our present, which bleed into the present, shape this unusual story of extraordinary revenge,” said Lantos.
In the decade leading up to this confluence of events, there has been an increasing awareness that there were WWII war criminals at large, still unaccounted for, but aging nonetheless. Operation Last Chance was launched in 2002 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center with a mission statement to track down ex-Nazis still in hiding.
But for Zev Guttman, the story begins with the death of his wife. Zev wakes up with a shudder and calls out his wife’s name – Ruth. It takes a few moments, and then he remembers she passed away a week earlier. On the last night of sitting shiva (the Jewish ritual of mourning), his wheelchair-bound friend Max (played by Martin Landau), also 90, gently hands him an envelope and tells him to open it in private. When Zev does, he finds a thick letter and a stack of hundred dollar bills. As he reads the words Max has written, he becomes immensely moved because it is telling him about a promise Zev made to Max – to track down Rudy Kurlander, the man both Max and Zev were after. Zev then packs a small bag and in the middle of that night, quietly slips away to a waiting taxi whose driver already knows Zev’s first destination. The journey towards destiny begins.
This is a story about a man who takes what energy he has left in his life and, driven by instructions and memory, invests it in one defining act of vengeance. It is sad and tender and nerve-racking. Lantos’ reaction to the material was both visceral and instinctive, particularly when he decided who should direct. Atom Egoyan. “Remember is a combination of character study, suspense and revelation upon revelation. This is Atom Egoyan territory. He is brilliant at peeling the layers away.”
“This is the last story that can be told about this period [in history] in our present day,” Egoyan pointed out, speaking to people’s need for a final chance at justice. In more ways than one, Egoyan views Remember as a ‘companion piece’ to his earlier work, Ararat (which also starred Plummer and was produced by Lantos), in that, “it addresses the residual effects of history over time and how we form ourselves particularly when one’s history involves trauma. This notion of how time and trauma are refracted through generations is at the core of so much of the material that I’m interested in. Certainly, that’s the theme of Ararat which we are seeing in this film as well: the effects of these historic events on the children of the perpetrators, the children of the survivors, refracted in very unexpected ways. You can’t predict what that effect will be, and that washes through the film.”
In addition to the potency of the historical themes in Remember, Egoyan gravitated to the quality of the story which Ari Lantos declared “a contemporary thriller with nuanced performances, which is why Atom was the right guy to tackle that.”
“It’s a shockingly original story with a character unlike any we’ve ever seen,” Egoyan elaborated. “I’ve made 15 features, a few of them from scripts I haven’t written. But not only is this one completely original, I think what Ben August has presented speaks of our relationship to horror in such an extraordinarily unique way. It’s simple on one level, something easy to relate to, and yet, so full of layers and complexity.”
Egoyan’s compositional eye tells the narrative with uncompromising devotion to the singular storyline. The plot, motivated by the past, but without conventional reliance on flashbacks, plays out completely in the present, free of sentimentality or manipulation.
Rooting for the old guy
Take everything Hollywood endorses about youth-obsessed celebrity and push that aside. Remember hinges on the age of the characters and the actors who deliver their stories. Not only are the war criminals from WWII aging, but so are their victims. This was essential for Benjamin August.
“A movie about an old man getting revenge – that in itself will make you nervous. How is he going to travel? Is he going to fall? Having an old man with dementia makes the quest exponentially harder. And that’s where the Max character comes in.” Max and Zev are partners. Zev has the mobility – Max has the plan, guiding him step-by-step by the letter and on the phone. August added, “If my grandparents went on a journey like this, it’d be terrifying. I mean, my grandma’s fallen just walking down the street to the café. Every step is nerve-racking and the fact that Zev gets so far, meets all these people, and overcomes these obstacles — it’s what’s really going to keep people in it.”
It is an easier story to have youthful characters go out in a blaze of light, but these characters are old men, their bodies are worn and their illusions are shattered. Zev is no Dirty Harry, but he survived the war and made a new life for himself, a new family and with the help of Max, he’s ventured back into the world and is making his last stand.
Robert Lantos provided details of his decision to make Remember as quickly as he could after reading the screenplay. “Now is the last moment in time when we can tell this story in the present tense. Ten years from now, it wouldn’t be realistic to be telling a story about a man who suffered a loss in the 1940s for which he’s now claiming revenge. Nor would it be realistic that the killer of his family in the 1940s would still be alive in 2025,” said Lantos. If this film had been delayed, it would’ve had to be a period piece, taking place in the past …which puts a certain distance between the audience, and the film and the story. I kept reading news reports about the arrests of war criminals still living in the US and Europe. Attempts to bring them to trial never came to fruition because they’d died before the end of the trial process. That is one of the reasons when I read the script: when a 90-year-old finds out that the Nazi guard from the Auschwitz concentration camp is living in America, he decides to take direct action because taking legal action would have no consequence.”
Filmmaking invariably offers a wide array of creative rewards to cast and crew involved, but on Remember, the convergence of quality material combined with the opportunity to work with legendary actors is worthy of note, especially when the director, producers and cast all felt rewarded by the company they were keeping.
“It’s dizzying,” Egoyan said. “You have a front row seat to these extraordinary moments where these exceptional human beings get to embody other people. But you also see them as themselves and realize that they have their own mythology. They are, of course, consummate actors, and they are the history of everything they’ve played, and what they bring to the set is just so extraordinary. They know their own instrument, their own body so well, what they can do with it, and what they’re able to play with, and to see them play off of each other – I mean, these are amazing moments.”