Sean O’Rourke reviews Gerry Gregg’s Condemned to Remember, in which Irish Holocaust Survivor Tomi Reichental celebrates his 80th birthday in a Dublin Mosque and embarks on epic journey across a Europe in turmoil.
Condemned to Remember is a documentary by frequent collaborators Gerry Gregg and Tomi Reichental which discusses the rise of modern, neo-fascist movements throughout Europe. This unfortunately prescient topic is given a wrenchingly personal touch by the latter collaborator: Reichental, a holocaust survivor. Born in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish family, he and his loved ones were sold to the Germans by their government, just as had been done to many other Czechoslovakian Jews, and he was forced into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The movie opens with Reichental, on his 80th birthday in Dublin where he has been invited celebrate Ramadan in a local mosque.
He is immediately disarming, joking as he is readying for his visit that there are few Holocaust survivors celebrating their 80th birthday in a mosque. Even in parts of the film that touch on the darkest moments human history has to offer, Tomi remains a bright, hopeful presence.
However, while the visit to the mosque was playing out, the film took a detour to explore the ongoing legal proceedings against a former SS guard present on a forced death march Tomi described in an earlier film. The film simultaneously starts to set up its examination of current neo-fascist movements in Europe without initially making any important thematic links between this, the mosque visit, and the German legal suit. As I watched this unfold, it seemed to me that the film lacked focus and it felt a waste to cut back and forth between these various proceedings if no greater point about their connections were to be made. The film even started to seem too eager to get to its next big moment, such that the editing often felt too fast. Rather than lingering on moments of human connection between, for example, Tomi and the granddaughter of a Nazi, it instead cut the scene to only its essential soundbites, then moved on before the humanity of these two people, miraculously occupying the same space, could really come through. In these early moments, I thought the film might be squandering its best intentions in an attempt to cover too much ground too quickly.
What relief it was for me then, to find the movie really come together as Tomi went further in his European journey. The film’s stated goal is to prevent genocides like the Holocaust from reoccurring and it does so by reclaiming the past from any complacency that moniker, “past,” might possess. As the film delves deeper into contemporary European political figures, such as Slovakia’s Marian Kotleba, whose rhetoric would not have seemed out of place in 1940s Germany (nor indeed in a massive nationalist Polish demonstration earlier this month), Reichental’s recounting of his experiences in the Holocaust do not just seem a recounting of past events, but as vital experiences that must be used to fight against those who would have them repeated.
The film also gives itself more room to breathe as it goes on and, in these moments, the film has a real poetry to it. Moments of connection, of Tomi looking into the eyes of those who have survived more recent genocides, serve the film’s central goal well and, in moments where the camera lingers on Tomi’s face as he reflects on what’s before him, we are allowed to form an intimate human connection with him, a connection that is made all the more important by a theme the movie brings home again and again: that there will be a day in the near future when there will be no more Holocaust survivors, when this direct link to that historical moment is severed. In its moments of greatest humanity, of Tomi walking down a dirt road with a Syrian refugee, or standing at the spot where his childhood home used to stand, that the film’s poetic power is brought to bear on its audience. These moments preserve the humanity of a man like Tomi powerfully, and assert the importance of such preservation.
The film is at its best when it generates that sense of immediacy in its discussion of the past with the present. Despite a certain formal conventionality, the film remains a powerful reminder of the horrors that human beings commit again and again right up to the present day. Indeed, as Tomi visits the spot of his childhood home, long since gone, its foundations buried under bush and weed, as Tomi stands in the corner of the frame, describing life there as a child, building a mental image for us that might fill the rest of the frame if we listen well, saying over and over that it is gone, and yet still feels like home, one sees the words of William Faulkner (by way of Tomi) ring true: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Gregg and his team capture something truly special here: the horror and the beauty of Tomi’s past, a past that carries great relevance in a world that often bears, as Gregg shows through powerful juxtaposition between Tomi’s remembrances and footage of modern-day Europe, uncomfortable relevance to the world just prior to the horrors visited on Tomi. Aside from a start that lacks focus and an occasional reluctance to let powerful scenes breath, the film manages to make its importance known, to pull the past into an uncertain present, and display for us the humanity of a man whose experience deserves our attention and prompts our action.
Condemned to Remember screened on 12th November 2017 as part of the Cork Film Festival
In Irish cinemas 3rd November 2017