In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
The tragic farce that was 2016 offered numerous disturbing wake-up calls—especially for those of us who’d internalized some pretty naïve (not to say sheltered) ideas about how much permanent progress America has made when it comes to equality. Certainly, I had no illusion that systemic racism had been largely solved; like other self-identified progressives, I can launch into a diatribe about, say, implicit bias at the drop of a hat. But I mostly thought about racist attitudes on that level: deeply entrenched but largely unconscious, and almost never voiced aloud. “Sure,” one might have argued as recently as the fall of 2015, “there are white supremacist organizations out there, but those people are a tiny, depraved minority, barely worth notice.” It’s been truly horrifying, over the course of the past year, to discover just how many Americans are still openly hateful toward anyone they perceive as different and now feel emboldened to spew their poison whenever they like. When it appears in movies, such behavior used to strike me as “cartoon racism,” and I’d be apt to complain that it distracts from the more insidious and prevalent variety that actually needs to be addressed. But these cartoons are no laughing matter.
Consequently, I keep thinking about Atom Egoyan’s little-seen Remember, which I saw at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival—just 16 months ago, but seemingly a lifetime away now. Even when the film was commercially released last March, its most galvanizing scene had no particular real-world resonance for me; I was able to “enjoy” it (maybe “appreciate” is a better word) purely as pulp fiction. Today it seems uncomfortably prescient. The scene occurs about midway through the movie, as protagonist Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), a dementia-addled Holocaust survivor trying to find the Nazi guard who murdered his family, shows up at the home of one possible suspect. The person he’s looking for, as it turns out, is dead, but the suspect’s adult son, John (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris), welcomes the old man all the same, eager to reminisce. To say that John has misunderstood why Zev is there would be a massive understatement. What follows is as flesh-crawling an experience as I’ve had at the movies in some time, mostly due to the casual nature of Norris’ performance. And that was true before it began reminding me of people who are very excited about our incoming president. The scene is too long for us to show it in its entirety (running close to 15 minutes), but take a look at this significant excerpt, and shudder.
Now, I’ve contextualized this in a way that makes it abundantly clear where John Kurlander’s sympathies lie (and the clip ends shortly before he starts saying things like “Heil Hitler”). In the moment, however, it’s not quite so clear. Norris’ performance as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad deftly walked a line between bluff bonhomie and barely repressed rage, and the same quality serves him well here; he comes across as vaguely threatening even when he’s totally empathetic, in part because you can always see the wheels turning in his mind. John initially approaches Zev with mild suspicion, but instantly turns friendly when Zev mentions his father. (Later, John will angrily accuse Zev of having lied in this moment and claimed to be a friend of his father’s, which Zev never actually does; that’s an assumption John leaps to on his own.) He remains a genial and accommodating host right up until the moment when he realizes who Zev actually is, even inviting his guest to spend the night. What’s more, the fact that he’s a state trooper suggests that, if anything is about to go wrong, it’ll perhaps involve Zev getting into trouble with the law for his vendetta.
Egoyan and screenwriter Benjamin August do plant some seeds, though. Several of these involve John’s perpetually barking German shepherd, whose name, very significantly, is Eva (presumably as in Braun). That’s perhaps a touch too cute, but there’s a subtler element at play, too: When Zev quickly gulps down the glass of water John provides, John marvels, “You were thirstier than Eva.” That’s meant as a joke, as Norris’ hearty smile confirms, but equating Zev with an animal does fit snugly into the character’s grotesque worldview. (See also Col. Hans Landa’s speeches about Jews and rats in Inglourious Basterds.) I also tend to think that August knew what he was doing when he has John assure Zev that Eva is all bark and no bite—exactly how I felt about white supremacists a year ago, when they rarely impinged on public consciousness. Such small touches, in concert with Norris’ canny tightrope walk of a performance, render superfluous composer Mychael Danna’s tense strings when Zev and John are talking on the porch. There’s no need to goose us with scary music; the situation is plenty unnerving as it is.
That’s true even when John takes Zev on a guided tour of his late father’s collection of Nazi memorabilia (at which point Danna’s score, which had gone silent for a while, abruptly kicks in again). Egoyan stages the reveal beautifully, observing John through the doorway as he rearranges boxes so that Zev can enter, then pushing into the room, where a swastika flag hangs over the mirror on the right-hand wall. This is the first indication that Zev may have found the Nazi guard he’s looking for (he hasn’t, as it happens), but there’s a difference between hanging onto an ugly piece of history and proudly displaying it in your home. Still, Norris succeeds, for the next several minutes, at maintaining a degree of ambiguity regarding John’s state of mind. There are collectors of such material, after all, and while we can argue about whether or not such an interest is psychologically healthy, not everyone who owns a first edition of Mein Kampf, or even an SS uniform, would make hideously anti-Semitic remarks, as John does shortly after this clip ends. Plus, it’s not even John’s collection. It’s his father’s. Maybe he just has a sentimental attachment to it?
Nope. Shortly thereafter, Zev learns that John’s father was still a child during World War II and couldn’t possibly have served as a Blockführer at Auschwitz. John assumes that Zev did, however, and excitedly asks to hear stories about his experiences, much as the teenage Todd Bowden does of an actual former Nazi guard in Stephen King’s Apt Pupil. Before Zev can think of a reply, however, John spots the faded, tattooed ID number on Zev’s arm, whereupon things turn vile (and violent) in a hurry. The racist invective that John shouts is difficult to hear, and the speed with which he recategorizes Zev—who he’d been treating like his new best friend—as something other than human is alarming. What truly haunts me, though, is the blasé nature of John’s everyday hatred. Even if people still secretly think such things, I’d believed they at least understand that it’s unacceptable to openly express them in what we might optimistically call mixed company. If a friend of your late father turned up at your house, you might show him Dad’s collection of Nazi stuff, but you’d preface the tour with an ass-covering show of tolerance, just to be safe. Right? At least until you got a clear sign that he’s on the same horrific page? What worries me is how much less fanciful this scene seems now than it did when I first saw it, not very long ago at all. More and more, they’re saying it loud. They’re racist and they’re proud.