The shadows of the past are darker in some lives than in others. Those belonging to survivors of the Holocost follow their every move into different continents, into different lifestyles, into different homes. In many cases, they are memories that become a cancer, a cancer that eats away not only in themsleves, but deep into the very core of their families.
Nothing makes it all more clear— more defined—than Emotional Arithmetic, a movie based on the novel by Matt Cohen.
Meeting in Quebec for the first time after so many years, Chris, Jacob and Melanie have formed a sort of spiritual family unit, deeply bonded through their terrifying experiences in Drancy. Drancy was a small transit prison camp near Paris during World War 11. People captured by the Nazis were sent there for deployment to labour camps or, the ultimate horror, to the death camps.
Melanie and Chris were merely children back then, busy gathering those early childhood experiences that would carry them forward throughout the rest of their lives. Jacob was the glue that held the little group together.
All three survived.
But experiences in the camps were of survival and death, depicted throughout the film as flashbacks in black and white. Nightmares have claimed the survivors—nightmares that cannot be shaken.
Jacob spent most of his life after Drancy in an insane asylum, where he was subjected to electric shock therapy. He lost some of his memory—perhaps a blessing, in his case. He sees the spirits of the younger Melanie and Chris sitting above him in the hayloft of a family barn. He is the only one who sees them. They stare down at him. They watch him. They forever haunt him.
Melanie has several emotional problems, deeply felt, nagging close to the surface and troubling every moment of her being. She forgets nothing of Drancy and is quick to envelop her son with the memories of her suffering. Her son and her husband David carry the weight of Melanie's instability and have for years. They live their lives day-to -day, feeling shut out, alone, not able in any way to relate to the despair around them.
The film is powerful. The actors, superb. Susan Sarandon as Melanie, Gabriel Byrne as Chris, Max Von Sydow as Jacob and Christopher Plummer as David all put in performances of understanding and depth— we are awakened and brought to the very center of this troubled and troubling history.
Dealing with the aftermath through the eyes of a future generation raises understanding of the Holocaust to another level. This movie carries the pain of those times, and the consequences of them, into the lives of today and on into the future.
As the horrors of genocide and the like keep croping up all around us with unspeakable rapidity, the inheritance of despair will continue indefinitely.
An opening line in the movie is somewhat distracting: "If you ask me if I believe in God, I am forced to answer does God believe in me?” This film is not about any formal belief in religion. It becomes clear it is more about belief in oneself and the ability to cope.
Emotional Arithmetic is a profound reflection. It underlines the fact that lessons learned in our youth, by whatever means, play a distinct role on what we become in later years—and what we pass on to our children.
Our pain and suffering are not exempt from travelling down through the bloodlines of our offspring. They, too, must face the difficulties of understanding and acceptance. Understanding of pain and suffering can, indeed, result in good and bad. What lessons we put into our spiritual pocket is what is important. Good may prevail, if we learn to leave despair behind, remember lessons learned, and move on in truth and faith. Should truth fade to myth, myth can become belief. And so tragedy in the heart may become positive food for the soul in order to gain radiance of a better life to come.
Emotional Arithmetic is one of the best films made in Canada in some time.
Watch for it on DVD.