“Remember This” is the story of how the Polish diplomat and patriot, Jan Karski, tried unsuccessfully to alert two important leaders of World War II, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, to the enormity of the Holocaust. It is having its Southeast premiere at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The film is a one-man show, featuring the celebrated actor, David Strathairn, in a virtuoso performance. His props throughout the film are nothing more than a wooden table and two wooden chairs.
The project was originally developed as a play at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where Karski taught for 40 years. It was co-written and directed by Derek Goldman, who heads the performing arts program there. The AJT spoke with him by phone from Krakow, Poland, where the play has been on a tour in four Polish cities.
AJT: Please describe the subject of both the play and the film.
Goldman: I think for us, one of the core themes of the film is individual responsibility, the idea that individuals have souls. Karsky didn’t go silent after World War II. He chose to teach for 40 years. And we see in his teaching his belief that, despite our human tendency to ignore things that are not convenient, and our tendency towards certain kinds of denial and complacency, that individuals have souls. Individuals have the capacity to make significant differences by taking care of each other, by bearing witness to what’s happening, by speaking up and speaking out. I think is probably the most important core theme.
AJT: How does the fact that Karski is not Jewish shape the story?
Goldman: It’s a story of allyship, of connection across difference. We see, in Karski, a very profound relationship to his own faith as a Catholic. His mother plays, I think, a really critical role in the trajectory of his story. She models and exemplifies very early, a sense of, for him, living a life of faith and devotion and commitment to others. And so, it’s so important for him to see in the early scenes what’s being done to Jews in his own neighborhood and his own choice to watch over them. His mother laid the foundation for a kind of way of being in the world. Today, at a time where we feel so polarized and fragmented and factionalized, it’s really important to witness, across differences, how developing alliances happen with those who are different than ourselves.
AJT: How did you get David Starthairn to do this project?
Goldman: I had worked with him previously on some projects and we had become friendly. In the beginning, I had only an image in my mind of the kind of dignity and humility and the texture of the project. And I thought of Dave first. I called him and he remembered Karski from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, “Shoah,” and it had stayed with him. The fact was it still haunted him a bit. He said ‘yes’ right away. Over time, I’ve gotten to see the toll the role has taken on him and what he gives to it. And it’s an amazing gift to be near. His performance is an incredible technical achievement, there’s almost a spiritual virtuosity in the way that David has found the spirit and bonded with the spirit of Karski.
AJT: You’ve managed to marry this incandescent performance with a spare, minimalist style shot in black and white that seems so right for this production. How did you achieve that?
Goldman: I think that we had the great gift that was the collaboration with Jeff Hutchens, the director of cinematography. The play already was cinematic in certain ways. It was lean and used time and space in certain expressive, transformative ways. But to create what we see on screen it took someone who came in with just incredible vision and experience as a director of photography and who responded so deeply to the material in a visual way.
There was a kind of miraculous dimension to what it took to pull it off in that way. We were just beautifully in sync with a team of people who were on the same page about what we were trying to do. And there was a kind of sacredness, actually, about those six days of filming watching David. it just was a masterclass in so many ways.
AJT: What’s been your impression of how this film has been received?
Goldman: We see in the character of Karski an inspiring example but not an easy example. Karski himself, of course, saw himself as largely a failure. So this is not a one sentence lesson that we’re imparting here, but it’s been very gratifying to see how not only how moved, but how galvanized and energized people seem to be by our film.
More information about “Remember This” can be found at www.globallab.georgetown.edu/projects/remember-this/