Jirí Menzel (left) and Peter Simonischek in “The Interpreter” (Photo/Courtesy Menemsha Films-JFI)
Jirí Menzel (left) and Peter Simonischek in “The Interpreter” (Photo/Courtesy Menemsha Films-JFI)

‘Interpreter’ evokes war angst in past and present Europe

The notion of victims or their children reconciling with the children of perpetrators, for the educational benefit and moral guidance of future generations, appeals to our innate optimism. Each side, however, must first reconcile with the painful events of the past. Truth is the prerequisite for reconciliation.

Yet the truth is an elusive goal for the World War II-scarred protagonists of Slovak writer-director Martin Sulik’s intriguing road movie, “The Interpreter,” screening four times in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. While it is an intriguing and nuanced consideration of Slovakia’s participation in the Holocaust, catharsis proves just out of reach both for the characters and the audience.

The film opens in present-day Vienna, where an elderly man disembarks from a train, obtains directions at the station and goes to a stylish apartment building. Intent on revenge, Ali Ungar knocks on the door of the Nazi officer who murdered his parents 70-plus years ago, only to be informed by Herr Graubner’s gray-haired son that he’s dead.

Aroused by something — curiosity, guilt and/or long-deferred and long-denied responsibility — the younger Graubner hires Ali, a multilingual translator, to accompany him to his father’s wartime stomping grounds in what was then eastern Czechoslovakia.

Georg Graubner (played by Peter Simonischek, the flamboyant German father in “Toni Erdmann”), is a carouser whose drinking and womanizing ruined three marriages. He is also an intelligent man with an apartment full of books. Affluent, comfortable and seemingly uninterested in reflection, he’s a metaphor for that segment of contemporary German (and Austrian) society that’s content to let the sands of time bury the past.

Ali, played by Jiri Menzel (the great Czech New Wave director of “Closely Watched Trains”), is Georg’s opposite: a cautious, distrustful man who feels the stab of enormous loss every single day. The fee Ali negotiates upfront with Georg, and his insistence on being paid (and reimbursed for expenses incurred after Georg’s wallet is stolen), indicates a stubborn refusal to be exploited.

(Ali’s attitude toward money can be seen as an unpleasant stereotype or, more likely, an ironic parallel to the fee that smugglers charged Jews to get across borders to the West — the opposite direction Georg and Ali are speeding toward in a Mercedes — before and during the war.)

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Their journey encompasses modern, prosperous cities and frozen-in-time farms off the beaten path. Both settings are shot through with the palpable sensation that the nasty secrets of the war years are submerged and preserved. The air is heavy with death, betrayal, collaboration and silence (save the barking of angry dogs).

But “The Interpreter” isn’t content to shine a light on the cover-ups, selective memory and code of silence adopted by the Slovaks and their descendants. One of the movie’s important albeit subtle themes is the way history is perpetuated in the present through failures of learning and teaching.

The screenplay suggests a growing affinity between Ali, who lost his father at a young age, and Georg, who grew up with a father who oversaw unspeakable crimes. The gregarious Georg even refers to Ali as his friend at a couple of points. But Ali, who never had the luxury of avoiding his past, resists this level of familiarity.

Georg is the lone character in this story who has the potential, impetus and opportunity to change. His conscience is triggered initially by real photographs of murdered men, women and children and actual videotaped testimony of survivors shown to him at a museum on the first stop on their trip.

Georg’s true awakening, however, occurs as he listens to the recollections of people the pair meet along their journey: those who saw their parents as victims (of the Nazis or the Communists who came to power after the war) or aged Slovaks who’ve internalized their Holocaust-era cowardice, opportunism and complicity to a chilling degree.

He recognizes his father in the older men, and himself in their children. No longer able to live in denial, Georg embraces the truth. His inevitable yet shocking next step is to demand reconciliation — by someone other than Ali.

“The Interpreter,” 6:30 p.m. July 20 at the Castro, S.F.; 5:50 p.m. July 23 at CinéArts, Palo Alto; 6:05 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Albany Twin; and 11:45 a.m. Aug. 5 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael.

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.