Holocaust survivor grapples with ghosts in Fugitive Pieces

One can reliably count on a Holocaust movie to deliver, at the very least, an emotional punch. But you can leave your hanky at home before seeing “Fugitive Pieces.”

Jewish director Jeremy Podeswa’s adaptation of fellow Canadian Anne Michaels’ acclaimed novel is a mannered, intellectual film that’s structured a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Flashing forward and backward in time, it simultaneously invites and undercuts an intimate connection with its characters.

What we’re left with is a beautiful, immaculately crafted meditation on the weight (and responsibility) of memory that holds our attention but never achieves a critical mass of dramatic or thematic power.

For the discerning, Podeswa (“The Five Senses”) offers a master class in lighting and cinematography. Indeed, there are several moments when his movie resembles a coffee-table book more than a film.

“Fugitive Pieces,” which had its local premiere in the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, opens Friday, May 23 in San Francisco.

The film begins in rural Poland during the war, with young Jakob (Robbie Kay) watching from a hiding place as the Nazis bust in and destroy his family. He flees into the forest, where he’s found the next morning by a Greek archaeologist named Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), who spirits him to his sunny abode overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean.

The adult Jakob (Stephen Dillane), meanwhile, is a writer in Toronto with a gorgeous, passionate, non-Jewish wife (Rosamund Pike) and a nearly finished novel. But he’s plainly haunted, ensconced in a dark apartment and too encumbered by the past to experience, let alone enjoy, the present.

The stories progress in a parallel manner, with the kindly Athos trying to draw Jakob out of his shell while the grown-up Jakob stakes out a loner’s life.

Regardless of his age or location, Jakob is teased, comforted and sometimes tormented by memories and dreams of his older sister Bella (Nina Dobrey), a dark-haired piano novice whose fate will always remain a mystery.

“Fugitive Pieces,” in English with dashes of Greek, Yiddish and German, is about the special burden of being a survivor, and living with traumatic formative experiences that nobody but another survivor can remotely grasp. At the same time, it’s an unexpectedly optimistic story that suggests there is a way to honor the memories of the murdered and exorcise one’s demons.

By intertwining Jakob’s adolescence and adulthood, the film depicts (albeit rather unsubtly) how memories and the past escape their bounds to become part of our everyday experience and identity. It’s a poignant message, although it comes off here as cerebral rather than gut-wrenching.

The film provides certain compensations — for one, it reminds us that the Nazis deported and executed the Jews of Greece, too — but a deep connection to the characters isn’t among them. Dillane plays Jakob as a morose, withdrawn fellow for so long that it’s difficult to sustain empathy for him.

Arguably the most touching character in the film is Ben, the young son of Holocaust survivors who live across the hall from Athos and Jakob in Toronto. (Athos accepts an invitation to teach at a university, and “godfather” and son end up renting an apartment and also keeping the house in Greece.)

While Jakob received his psychic scars at the hands of the Nazis, Ben is inculcated with his father’s fears. That residual damage of the Third Reich is more painful to watch than anything Jakob goes through after he flees Poland.

“Fugitive Pieces” opens Friday, May 23 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in S.F.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.