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‘Treasure’ Could Have Gone Terribly Wrong

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A tall man in a beard and a shorter woman in a large coat look at each other with a knowing look.
Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in 'Treasure.' (Bleecker Street and FilmNation)

There are so many ways that Treasure could go wrong. The left-field casting of lit-Brit Stephen Fry as a Polish Holocaust survivor and Manhattan enfant terrible Lena Dunham as his unhappy daughter. The clichés and stereotypes of a cross-generational roots trip to the Old Country. The inevitable tonal shifts from awkwardness to farce to pathos.

So it’s a relief to report that Treasure (opening Friday June 14 at the Rialto Cinemas 9, Opera Plaza Cinemas 4, Century Tanforan 20 and Century 20 Redwood Downtown) delivers a memorably meandering journey with a couple of knockout sequences. German writer-director Julia von Heinz brings a blend of tenderness and toughness to her stripped-back adaptation of Too Many Men, the 2001 autobiographical novel by New York writer Lily Brett. Rewarding up to a point, the film would have benefitted from more of a willingness to look — and venture — into the abyss.

Lena Dunham in ‘Treasure.’ (Bleecker Street and FilmNation)

Treasure is keenly interested in the complicated Polish experience of World War II and its Soviet afterlife, as well as the immense suffering of the Jewish population. The freshest element of the film, though, is its allusive depiction of the difficulties of being a child of Holocaust survivors.

Set in 1991, a hazy patch of the past that initially puts us at some distance from the characters and place, Treasure opens with Ruth and Edek at a cheerless Warsaw airport. We gather that the trip is Ruth’s idea; a music journalist in her mid-30s, she’s decided she wants to see where her dad grew up.

Ruth is underwritten — not a fatal flaw, since the film spins on what’s gone unsaid between her and her father — so we fill her in with Dunham’s screen persona: intelligent, underachieving, unsentimental, unlucky in love and self-aware (up to a point). Ruth is witheringly uncharismatic, but gets her juice from Dunham’s overriding quality as an actress: unpredictability.

Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry in ‘Treasure.’ (Bleecker Street and FilmNation)

Fry plays Edek as a 20th Century Tevye, complete with bushy gray beard and booming voice. But where the Yiddish-speaking original bore the burdens of shtetl life on a milk wagon, Edek labors to give the impression of a man whose pain, if not every iota of sadness, is in the past.


Yet we can see that Edek’s resistance to Ruth’s train itinerary isn’t philosophical but molecular. He refuses to ride the rails to Lodz or anywhere else, hiring a taxi driver instead as their chauffeur-slash-tour guide.

Treasure kicks into gear when Edek and Ruth find his childhood home. The family living in the barely maintained apartment are suspicious of the Jewish visitors’ motives, but nevertheless offer basic European hospitality. The appearance of the teapot rocks Edek; it was his grandmother’s.

It rocks us, too. The tea set is the only thing of quality this poor Polish family has. Whether obtained through opportunism (they nabbed the apartment when Edek’s family was deported) or luck (it was among the possessions left behind), it is a symbol of dignity. After decades of Soviet-era depradations, it is also a liquid asset if American Jews want to purchase their heirloom.

Stephen Fry in ‘Treasure.’ (Bleecker Street and FilmNation)

One of the film’s recurring “jokes” is that the Poles know the value of a dollar far better than the Americans. The implications of the teapot transaction are quite profound, actually, because they reveal Ruth’s desire to connect with relatives she never knew, as well as her urge to make a gesture (in the form of a gift) to Edek.

Treasure, like every work related to the Holocaust, is concerned with how the past informs and influences the present. What are the moments we treasure, or are scarred by? What is the value of memories, after all? Are they worth the price?

The movie subtly yet viscerally brings this home with a pair of parallel scenes. A visit to a Jewish cemetery in Lodz at Ruth’s request leaves Edek unmoved. “We don’t have a family plot,” he declares. At Auschwitz, however, he loses it, kicking the weeds at an unmarked site where he last saw his family after getting off the transport train.

Stephen Fry, Lena Dunham and Zbigniew Zamachowski in ‘Treasure.’ (Bleecker Street and FilmNation)

If memory serves, Steven Spielberg’s coda to Schindler’s List was a gathering of the individuals whom the German industrialist saved from the Nazis along with their generations of offspring. The group portrait was a powerful statement: Life itself is a declaration of victory.

Edek’s journey may be more wrenching, but Ruth’s ultimately comes to feel like the movie’s raison d’etre. Late one night in the hotel, she takes a needle to her skin in what we are initially led to think is an act of self-harm. Actually, Ruth is inking herself; much later we see the tattoo itself, and recognize it as an act of commemoration and of identification.

This initiative of Ruth’s, like other peak moments in Treasure, has built-in contradictions. According to a longstanding interpretation of Jewish law, body art is a taboo.

Treasure leaves us thinking about what children of survivors needed growing up, and didn’t get. I wish it was more specific, though, about Ruth’s circumstances and articulated her pain more effectively. Admittedly, that would make her reconciliation with Edek more difficult. And it likely wouldn’t make for as satisfying an ending.

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