As I watched Fugitive Pieces, I could not help but think of my many friends and family members who are the children of Holocaust survivors. When they discuss it at all, these friends often recall how difficult it was to be raised by parents who lived day in and day out with the wrenching guilt of having survived when so many others perished (sometimes being the only family member to have done so). Sometimes shut out of their parent’s heart, left inaccessible by immeasurable loss, they often feel unloved, resented for their lives, lived in relative comfort and ease, even as they are overprotected and cherished. And how can they share something with their children that is nearly impossible to understand; something of which they themselves have yet to fully gain closure?
There have been many, many films about the Holocaust, and about survivors, but Fugitive Pieces (currently showing in art house cinemas throughout the country) gives us a detailed character study of one man, haunted and driven by having survived, when his family did not.
Fugitive Pieces tells the story of Jakob Beer (played as a boy by Robbie Kass), who as a young boy in Poland observes from behind a closet door as his parents are murdered in their home, his sister dragged away by Nazi Storm Troopers. A terrified Jakob runs into a nearby forest, hiding in the freezing cold under piles of dead leaves. Seen by Greek archaeologist Athos (Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija), Jakob is rescued and smuggled out of Poland and into Greece, where Athos hides the wary and terrified Jakob for the duration of World War II.
In a sense, Jakob has saved Athos, too, as his colleagues, still digging in Poland (for evidence of Nazi atrocities, we learn) are discovered and murdered. Both Jakob and Athos suffer the sort of guilt only possible when one has escaped due to fortune or circumstance, while everyone else has perished.
The war now over, Athos is offered a post at a Canadian university, and, bringing Jakob with him, they make a life for themselves next door to a family of Jewish refugees. The familiarity of language, custom, and shared experience draws young Jakob into their embrace, providing him with connection to family he has only in his memories. But nothing can heal within Jakob the sense that he should not have fled; should not have allowed himself to be rescued. “What if she had come back for me and I was not there?” he asks years later. “What if I could have done something?” He is haunted, even into adulthood, by the image of his sister at the piano, his mother cooking a Sabbath meal.
Obsessed with memory that will not loose its grip — will not fade — the adult Jakob (now played by the fabulous Stephen Dillane), a novelist and professor, pours out his grief into his writing, but is unable to move past it. Marrying the beautiful Alex (Rosamund Pike), Jakob is unable to allow himself to love her, to appreciate her or enjoy her. He journals his anger with her seeming frivolity for having the audacity to enjoy life, wear stylish clothing — her very happiness is trivial and out of place and out of context within his intractable grief, stuck in a time long past in most people’s memory. She neither understands his obsession with his memories of the Holocaust, nor his inability to move past his pain. Eventually, however, now divorced, Jakob returns to Greece, where he writes his story and meets Michaela — someone who can embrace his pain, and can help him heal by simply being there. At last Jakob can obtain closure and allow the ghosts of his past find their own peace.
Along the way, Jakob also helps Ben, his close friend and neighbor, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, gain an eventual understanding of his father’s own behavior — his distance, even his cruelty.
Dillane (John Adams, Savage Grace), who seems to be popping up everywhere on screens large and small these days, is wonderful as the adult Jakob. He always seems to imbue his roles with a sense of simultaneous strength and fragility, and his Jakob Beer is haunted and hurting, living on a knife edge. Even when happy, you get the impression that Jakob is merely an observer of his own life. He is a distant spectator, anguished; when he meets Michaela, and finally begins to really begin to live again, Dillane peels away the layers and layers of Jacob’s moribund heart and soul until we finally see him redeemed.
In fact, the entire cast is stellar. Robbie Kaye is excellent as the young Jakob — frightened, wary, guarded, truly a stranger in a strange land. His large, sad eyes evoke images of Oliver Twist, but with a stolen innocence. Rade Serbedzija’s gentle Athos is part Zorba and part Tevye, showing us a man suffering from his own grief and loss (his wife), which is mitigated by his love for the young Jakob.
This is not a film for everyone; it is quite bleak, and the sadness is occasionally oppressive. But director Jeremy Podeswa’s beautiful rendering and Dillane’s sensitive and graceful performance make it so very worthwhile (but bring a handkerchief or three).