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‘Remembrance (Japan title: Ano Hi Ano Toki Ai no Kioku’

Despair breeds romance

by Kaori Shoji

The memories of World War II grow dimmer in the Japanese collective consciousness, but, as the month in 1945 that the war ended, August is a time of remembrance and of sharing stories among family or in the media. Of these, love stories come few and far between, primarily because love affairs were taboo under Japan’s military rule.

Which is why such a film as “Remembrance” will strike a chord that other WWII films simply can’t. It’s about a romantic relationship that blossoms in Auschwitz, withers at the end of the war and blooms anew in 1976, when the protagonists are in their 50s and have each long given up on finding the other alive.

Directed by Anna Justice, “Remembrance” is a powerfully intimate portrayal of passion and deliverance from the past. It’s also a tribute to a time when relationships seemed to have monumental meaning and memories haunted the consciousness long, long after the world chose to forget and move on.

In 1944, Hannah Silberstein (Alice Dwyer) was a young woman held captive at Auschwitz. As a Jew, her days seem numbered, but she throws herself into a passionate love affair with Polish inmate Tomasz Limanowski (Mateusz Damiecki), who is treated slightly better for being Christian. They exchange clandestine embraces and whisper their feelings for each other in the space of a few minutes snatched here and there.

“Remembrance” highlights this precious, brief time they spend together, and the miracle of romance emerging among the screams of torture and the filth from hundreds of starved and unwashed bodies jostled into tiny cells. When Tomasz and Hannah are together, it would take a can opener to pry them apart; especially memorable is the way Hannah wraps her arms around Tomasz, her eyes shut so tightly she seems in the grip of a terrible agony or an unspeakable ecstasy. Probably both.

Then Tomasz devises a plan of escape and they defy all odds to make it across the barbed wire and over the border. For an instant, it seems they’re headed for freedom and a happy ending. But two years later Hannah is alone in New York, making desperate inquiries about Tomasz. In the chaos that erupted at the end of the war the couple had been torn apart, and despite her efforts, Hannah is convinced her lover is dead.

Fast forward some three decades to the mid-1970s (actually this part of the film comes first). Hannah (played here by Dagmar Manzel) is now 52, happily married to prosperous New Yorker Daniel (David Rasche) and firmly rooted in American life. Only one heavily creased photo of Tomasz testifies to her time at the death camp and what she had had to endure. “I’m finished with the past,” she tells Daniel — but she doesn’t look convinced.

Hannah wants nothing more than to shut out the images from Auschwitz that return to haunt her waking hours and poison her dreams. But she has never gotten over Tomasz, or shaken the feeling that she paid for her survival with his death.

Then one day Hannah is watching TV and sees Tomasz (Lech Mackiewicz) on the screen. That single shock of recognition is enough; now she must seek him out, even if it means wrecking her marriage and alienating her family.

Daniel is at first worried and then enraged at the change in his wife, whom he thought he knew so well. “It would probably be best if you just went to see him!” he yells, when he finds her pacing to and fro in the kitchen. All around her, Hannah’s carefully ordered world unravels as the past rushes back at her like a claw-footed monster, and the film makes a rapid swerve from the mature woman Hannah has become to the scared 20-year-old girl coughing in the stench of the smoke rising from the camp’s corpse incinerators.

There are very few shots of actual warfare: The wide-eyed fear on young Hannah’s face or the bones that stand out pathetically on Tomasz’s wrists and hands as he clutches Hannah’s shoulders are somehow far more harrowing. You can’t walk away from “Remembrance” unscathed.

And now, since it is August, here’s a homegrown love story in the midst of war. My grandmother’s sister was lucky enough to marry a childhood friend, but his unit was sent to the Philippines a week after the wedding ceremony. During the seven days he had at home, family obligations and army duties took up most of his time, and the bride had just a few moments alone with him, at a neighborhood temple during an errand. There, in a secluded alcove hemmed in by trees, they held hands and hugged.

The next day he left to board a ship that was bombed a month later and sank in the middle of the Pacific.