The International Writers Magazine:DVD Reviews

Everything Is Illuminated
Directed by Liev Schreiber
Jonathan Safran Foer (novel)
Liev Schreiber (screenplay)

Dan Schneider

verything Is Illuminated was a surprise 2002 hit novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which was a thinly veiled fictional account of his 1999 trip to Ukraine to research his Jewish roots during World War Two.

The young author, only twenty-five at the book’s release, elicits a widely divergent critical range of opinion- from hyperbolic praise by established hack writers like Joyce Carol Oates, to outright condemnation by young, unpublished hacks who resent his two book, half a million dollar publishing deal.

Never having heard of the writer before, and never having read his work, I had no idea of all this when I picked up the 2005 film version of his book, starring ex-Hobbit Elijah Wood as Foer, and directed by actor Liev Schreiber, his first time behind the camera. What I saw was a truly great, but little, film. More than being simply great, though, the film is, by far, the best fictional film ever made about Jewish suffering during the Final Solution of the Nazi reign of terror in Europe, during World War Two. It achieves this apogee with a deft mix of comedy and drama that is reminiscent of the best of Charlie Chaplin, yet shorn of the worst elements of that Master’s sentimentality.

How much of this is due to Foer’s book, and how much due to the sterling script, penned by Schreiber, I do not know, but the acting is nothing short of spectacular, all around, starting with Wood as Jonathan. He is an obsessive collector, because he fears forgetting his past, and puts all sorts of things in plastic bags. Yet the space for his recently deceased grandfather is bare. All he has of him is a piece of jewelry and an old photo with a woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis that his grandmother gives him. Jonathan decides to travel to Odessa, Ukraine to find the woman, thank her for saving his ancestor, and learn more about his grandfather’s former life.

Once there he becomes dependent upon a family, that runs tours of the homeland for wealthy Diasporic Jews, which includes Alex Perchov, Jr. (Eugene Hutz), who is obsessed with black gangsta culture, and Negroes like Michael Jackson, and his grandfather (Boris Leskin), a hypochondriac who thinks he’s blind, and who hates Jews. Grandpa also owns a psychotic little female pooch, oddly called Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr., after his own favorite performer, who acts as his ‘seeing eye bitch’. This trio dominates the first 70% of the movie, looking for the lost shtetl of Trachimbrod, and it is a flat out hilarious road movie, dealing with Anti-Semitism, basketball, break dancing, and vegetarianism, among many other things. Perhaps the funniest scene comes when Alex tries to explain to his little brother, while looking at a porno mag, what a 69 is, and claims that it’s called that because the sexual position was invented in 1969.

After a series of misadventures in the countryside, they arrive at a small home, out in the Ukrainian backcountry, surrounded by a large field of sunflowers, and Grandpa somehow knows this is near Trachimbrod. Alex asks the old lady (Laryssa Lauret) who lives there if she knows where Trachimbrod is. At first, she demurs, but then she relents. She too is a collector, and she straightens out some of Jonathan’s misconceptions about the past, in general, and his specifically - mainly that her sister Augustine was the girl who saved Jonathan’s grandfather. She leads the others to a river, where the town of Trachimbrod once stood, and we find out that in 1942 1024 Jews were shot to death by the Nazi hordes, and that Alex’s Grandpa was one of them, but he survived, dropped his religion, and changed his name. The old woman was a young girl who came upon Grandpa, after a massacre, and said nothing when he left, thus saving his life.

Yet, only the audience sees this, in Grandpa’s reflection. It turns out that the visit to the memorial triggers all sorts of internal reactions in the old man, and on the trio’s return trip to Odessa, Grandpa suddenly slits his wrists in a bathtub, and bleeds to death overnight. Alex discovers him, and he and Jonathan just keep going. Both of the young men are changed, and forever connected, as each occupies a place, now, in the others’ past. The film ends with both Jonathan and Alex at the graves of their grandfathers, with Alex, apparently having figured out that he and his clan are Jews, after all. This is the only contrived moment in the film, for we are never let on to how Alex figured out why Grandpa did himself in, for even Alex’s voiceover at film’s end manifests his confusion over Grandpa’s motives.

 Wood, as said, is very good, as the far too phobic lead, but Hutz, as Alex, and Leskin, as Grandpa, are simply magnificent in their delicate blend of comedy and pathos. Lauret also shines brightly as the old woman. The cinematography of Matthew Libatique (of Requiem For A Dream infamy) is also, at times, dazzling, making the Czech Republic’s countryside, where the film was shot, as beautiful as any place ever portrayed in film. The musical scoring by Paul Cantelon is never overbearing, which is the sign of a good job, for it does not guide the viewer, it merely complements what the images portray, especially when non-Klezmer. Unfortunately, there is no commentary on this DVD. One with Foer, Schreiber, and Wood would have been great, and one with Hutz even better. There are some deleted scenes and a trailer, but otherwise it’s a very bare bones DVD.

This film succeeds where god-awful epics like Schindler’s List fail precisely because it mixes in the funny with the horrid, and does not dwell on the pornography of death that many in the business of prostituting the Holocaust and its dead millions rely on. The death of an individual, in this film, is far more affecting than Spielberg’s anonymous bodycount. The viewer, who is smart enough, can multiply that by the millions to himself. Seeing the old lady is a collector of the things of the dead, too, is a powerful way to evoke not just the dead’s bodies, but their lives and desires, the essence of the human far truer than flesh and blood. Another positive of the film is that it does not tie all things up in a neat bow, and is thus more real than many such films that have to spoonfeed their audiences. Save for Alex’s end conversion to Judaism, all these loose ends emotionally fit, so to speak.

Fans of the book complain that the illumination at the novel’s end is that Alex’s grandfather was a Gentile who finked out his Jewish friend to the Nazis to save his own family. This would explain Grandpa’s suicide a bit better than believing that he felt some survivor’s guilt, when the film makes him a Jew. Yet, since the film ends realistically, without answering all questions, the suicide fits neatly into that spectrum, thus leavening the discrepancy. And, be that as it may, films always have to change things in books, and the film’s revelations are no less devastating, and more realistic, especially if you’ve never read the book, so the argument fails. The film does not. It entertains, enlightens, and leaves a viewer wanting more. This is what all art should do.

© Dan Schneider, June 2006

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