Liev Schrieber’s 2005 adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s semi-autobiographical novel “Everything is Illuminated” is deceptive in its outward quirkiness, which may have accounted for its lack of box-office success. The film, which tells the story of a fictional version of Foer, played by Elijah Wood, who travels to Ukraine on a journey to find a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust, does give the appearance of Wes Anderson if his work was just a bit more Jewish.
It certainly has some of that in it, especially early on. Jonathan arrives in Odessa and is greeted by his eager, hip-hop loving, possibly closeted-gay tour guide Alex (Gogo Bordello’s Eugene Hutz), who narrates the story, pronounces Jonathan’s name “Jonfen,” and loves describing things as “premium.” Alex’s family runs a tour guide business that specializes in helping American Jews visit significant sites from their pre-WWII ancestry. The first act of the film makes it seem like a fairly standard fish out of water, culture shock story. Alex and Jonathan are driven around by Alex’s antisemitic grandfather who thinks he is blind, and his “seeing eye bitch,” a shelter dog that Alex’s father adopted. It moves at a quick pace with a series of set pieces like Jonathan trying to order a vegetarian meal at dinner and only receiving a single boiled potato.
It’s as the movie moves between acts that it undergoes a tonal shift. The town that Jonathan seeks, Trachimbrod, was completely annihilated by the Nazis. The group isn’t able to immediately find it and it becomes clear that Alex and his grandfather normally don’t really care if they do, their business is mostly a scam, trying to spend as much time on the road as they can to make more money. Only after learning his family’s version of the story of the village and the woman Augustina from Jonathan do they decide they really want to help him. As the attitudes of the characters change, so too does the pacing. Previous quick cuts give way to longer, more meandering filmmaking, indicating a sense of loss and being lost. If you’re interested in seeking this movie out, and want to preserve this ending for yourself, I advise you to stop reading here.
By the time they arrive at their destination, where they meet Augustina’s sister nestled away in a tiny cottage surrounded by sunflowers, the film feels like a breathing work of art. It is quiet, it is deliberate, and it is haunting. But there is one particular detail that is the reason I’m writing about it now, the reason this movie has never left me. As Jonathan and Alex are told her memory of Trachimbrod, and we learn that Augustina died that day, and when we witness the Nazi’s firing squads, we learn that Grandfather was there too.
A citizen of the shtetl, Grandfather was left for dead by the Nazis, and when he finally rose from the pile of bodies, he renounced his faith, angry at God for the hatred and wickedness he had experienced. I’ve never been able to shake the Grandfather character since seeing the film. Here is a man who wants to be free from the past, wants it dead, he claims, but yet has spent the rest of his life following the war by operating a business whose sole stated purpose is bringing Jews home. There’s a degree of extreme longing in him, a subconscious need to be healed of the immense pain he went through, but he doesn’t understand how to do it. That night, Grandfather commits suicide in the bathtub of their hotel, not out of despair, but out of a sense of finally being at peace and willing to let go. The film ends with Alex and his family, now wearing yarmulkes, standing over the grave of Grandfather, buried at Trachimbrod, at rest.