After her father’s funeral in Sweden, a Holocaust survivor named “Katherine” (Kathleen Gati) travels to her hometown in Transylvania search of answers to long-buried mysteries. Crosscut with Katherine’s story is the story of “Sandor” (András Demeter), the man who helped save Katherine, but stayed in the village after she left.

In Katherine’s arc, the companions on her journey are her husband, her daughter, and her half-sister “Julie” (Sarah Clark). The sisters argue about funeral arrangements (Julie wants to ignore their father’s last wish and bury him next to her mother), nevertheless, Julie accompanies Katherine to what is now Romania.

No explanation is ever given for their father’s relocation to Sweden, and only at the very end can we be sure that Katherine and Julie had different mothers. The main action is set in 1980, so presumably Katherine and her father have been gone for 30 years or so, but again, it’s never clear exactly when they left or under what circumstances. Nor do we know when or where Julie was born. Was her mother was also a survivor like her father?

Katherine and Julie don’t seem to have any current ties to anyone in Romania, don’t tell anyone they’re coming, and don’t seem to be looking for anyone in particular. Katherine just wants to “return” now that her father can no longer prevent it.

In Sandor’s arc, a kindly boy has now become a stolid man who bristles under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989). Ceausescu is expected imminently and everyone in the town is preparing for his arrival. Sandor and his wife “Anna” (Hilda Peter) have been married for some time, and she desperately wants a child, but Sandor refuses. His bitterness against the cruelty of the current regime is palpable, and he is determined never to bring more innocent new lives into such torment.

The two stories continue on parallel tracks until the very end when, for totally independent reasons, Katherine and Sandor both make their way to the remote hunting cabin in which he helped shelter her during the Holocaust (when they were both children).

Filmmaker Judit Elek (born and raised in Budapest) has a distinguished career with many writing and directing credits and several international awards, so I really wanted to like this film. But even though some of the scenes are beautifully filmed (especially the opening segment in Sweden), I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make the various pieces of the narrative fit together, and the first time I watched, I was frankly baffled.

According to the credits, the Retrace screenplay is actually based on two separate novels, Summer Night by Marguerite Duras and Winged Horses by Miklós Mészöly. But my gut tells me even if I knew the details of these two source novels, I still wouldn’t be able to fit them together. And sad to say, the Holocaust story, after so many Holocaust stories, doesn’t make the impact that it should even though Elek tells us at the end that her narrative incorporates information she learned many years after the fact about her own sister Vera’s death. 

Retrace played at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their 15th annual European Union Film Festival. Thanks to all who participated in my Q&A after the screening. Seeing Retrace a second time helped, but the many insightful comments from audience members (especially those from Hungary!) helped even more 🙂

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