As always at the Woodstock Film Festival, there were way too many enticing entries to choose from this year, ranging from quirky little projects you’ll get to see nowhere else to big-budget indie features with big-name casts and directors that will get widespread distribution. In the immediate wake of WFF weekend, HV1 would like to direct readers’ attention to a product that falls in the middle of this spectrum: the filmed version of a gripping one-man stage play that’s been seen around the country over the past year. The current production of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski by Theater for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn has been extended until October 16, and if you move fast, you might still be able to score a ticket.
As of its East Coast premiere at WFF last Wednesday — scheduled midweek as the very first event of the Festival, so that star David Strathairn, directors Jeff Hutchens and Derek Goldman and producer Eva Anisko could be on hand — the movie version of Remember This didn’t yet have a distributor, so we don’t know if it’ll be viewable in cinemas. In the talkback session following the screening (and a long standing ovation by the audience), the principals expressed the hope that the film would become an educational tool of lasting value and see much use at museums, universities and the like. If that makes this movie sound didactic or even dull, don’t be fooled: It’s a hair-raising tale of a man on a perilous mission of righteous espionage, frequently escaping death by the narrowest of margins, viscerally embodied by Strathairn in the performance of a lifetime.
Indeed, the genesis of Remember This happened in an academic setting: a challenge to create a dramatic tribute to Karski to mark the 2014 centennial of his birth by Georgetown University, where he had earned his doctorate and taught in the School of Foreign Service for 40 years. Derek Goldman, chair of Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, director of the Theater and Performance Studies Program and co-founding director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, took up the gauntlet. Strathairn was recruited early on, and the commission soon became a passion project for both. Originally conceived as an ensemble piece, it was pared down to a solo show and ready to tour just when COVID-19 shut down live theater for a couple of years. Thanks to the depth of commitment of all involved, we now finally have it, both onstage and on film, and the results were worth the wait. Remember This is a soul-searing masterpiece.
Who was Jan Karski? “An insignificant little man” in his own assessment, but declared Righteous among the Nations by the Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem and awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom 12 years after his death. Born Jan Kozielewski in Łódz, Poland, in 1914, a Catholic growing up in a largely Jewish neighborhood, he was a gifted child with a photographic memory who excelled in school, was recruited to military officers’ training and aspired to become a diplomat. His career was interrupted in 1939 by the invasion of Poland by the Nazis on one front and the Red Army on the other. Fleeing the former after his unit was nearly wiped out and captured by the latter, he became a pawn in a prisoner exchange. It was only by the accident of his having been born in a city already held by the Third Reich that he escaped the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers.
That was only the beginning of Karski’s perils. He leapt from a train headed for a POW camp — a scene in which 73-year-old Strathairn gets to demonstrate his athleticism — and joined the Polish Underground, adopting Karski as his nom de guerre. His exceptional memory, which enabled him to report accurately on what he had witnessed without carrying incriminating notes, made him a valuable asset. He became a courier, conveying intelligence to France, Britain and back again to Poland before being captured and tortured by the Gestapo in Slovakia. We can almost hear bones cracking as Strathairn mimes his captors breaking his jaw.
Smuggled out of a Nazi hospital, with the help of staff who were later executed for their collaboration with the Underground, Karski went on to undertake the mission that would put his name in the history books. Representatives of the Jewish resistance movement took him to visit the Warsaw ghetto and, disguised as a Ukrainian guard, to a transit point for Polish Jews being sent to the Bełzec death camp. He then went to visit British foreign secretary Anthony Eden in London and Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and FDR himself in Washington, telling the horrific details of all that he had seen, begging for Allied intervention before Eastern European Jews were entirely annihilated.
No one was willing to believe him. A Jew himself, Justice Frankfurter said that, while he would not accuse Karski of lying, he didn’t think that human nature would permit atrocities on such a scale. FDR simply changed the subject to what damage the Nazi occupation had done to farms in Poland. Dispirited and unable to return safely to his homeland, Karski remained in America for the rest of his life, completing his education, writing a memoir and quietly pursuing his teaching career. His heroism remained unrecognized until Claude Lanzmann incorporated interviews with him into his Holocaust documentary Shoah.
Onstage and on film, with no set dressing except a wooden table, two chairs and a change of clothes, this life ethically and intensely lived becomes a story as pulse-poundingly vivid and compelling as a spy thriller. The movie version is shot in black-and-white: a brilliant touch by cinematographer Jeff Hutchens that, combined with skillful lighting effects, makes the heartbreaking story simultaneously more abstract and more real and raw. The script by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, derived entirely from Karski’s own writing except for a prologue and epilogue that point up the story’s continuing relevance in the modern world, is lean and tight. Brought to life by the supremely gifted Strathairn, it’s a devastating indictment of what Karski called humanity’s “infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”
As noted when HV1 profiled him in 2013 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2013/04/08/david-strathairn-to-headline-red-hook-literary-festival-april-12-14), David Strathairn has a local connection: a home in Orange County. He has been a staunch supporter of the Woodstock Film Festival for many years. Highlights of his acting career include many collaborations with John Sayles, beginning with The Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1979; featured roles in Lincoln, Nomadland and a couple of Bourne movies; recurring roles in more than a dozen TV series; and a Best Actor Oscar-nominated star turn as Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). This reviewer for one has been wishing for years that Strathairn would get offered starring roles more often. As it turns out, this filmed version of a play written for the stage may turn out to be the ultimate jewel in his crown.
See it when and where you can. To learn more about the movie, visit https://rememberthiskarskifilm.com. To obtain tickets to Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski at Theater for a New Audience, visit www.tfana.org/remember-this/tickets.
Woodstock Film Festival award winners 2022
Best Narrative Feature Winner: Amerikatsi, directed by Michael Goorjian
Best Documentary Feature Winner: Last Flight Home, directed by Ondi Timoner
Best Editing Narrative Winner: Triangle Of Sadness, edited by Ruben Östlund, Mikel Cee Karlsson
Best Editing Documentary Winner: The Return Of Tanya Tucker- Featuring Brandi Carlile, edited by Brady Hammes
World Of Ha Change Maker Award Winner Remember This, directed by Jeff Hutchens, Derek Goldman. The Change Maker Award honors a filmmaker whose work, either narrative or documentary, most effectively delves deep into a pressing contemporary issue and generates a constructive conversation. The award comes with a $5,000 cash prize courtesy of World of HA.
Ultra Indie Award Winner: Hannah Ha Ha, directed by Jordan Tetewsky and Josh Pikovsky
Best Cinematography Winner: Amerikatsi, cinematography by Ghasem Ebrahimian
NYWIFT (The New York Women in Film & Television) Award For Excellence In Directing A Narrative Film: My Love Affair With Marriage, directed by Signe Baumane
Nywift Award For Excellence In Directing A Documentary Film: Exposure, directed by Holly Morris
Best Short Narrative: Moshari, directed by Nuhash Humayun
Best Short Documentary: As Far As They Can Run, directed by Tanaz Eshaghian
Best Student Short: El Carrito, directed by Zahida Pirani
Best Animation: Buzzkill, directed/animated by Peter Ahern
Recipients of the special honorary awards include:
The Maverick Award was given to Ethan Hawke, four-time Academy Award®-nominated artist and one of Hollywood’s most multi-faceted stars. The award was presented to Hawke by Amanda Seyfried, who starred opposite Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.
The Transcendent Talent Award was given to Awkwafina, award-winning actress, writer and producer. The award was presented by producer Peter Saraf (The Farewell) with video messages by many of the actors and directors Awkwafina has worked with in the past few years.
The Trailblazer Award was given to Arianna Bocco, President of IFC Films (Boyhood, The Death Of Stalin, In The Loop) and was presented to Bocco by documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich.
The Fiercely Independent Award was given to Debra Granik, director and co-writer of Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace, and was presented by Vera Farmiga, who starred in Debra’s multiple award-winning feature directorial debut Down To The Bone.