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BERLINALE 2024 Berlinale Special

Review: Treasure


- BERLINALE 2024: Julia von Heinz’s post-Holocaust story, set in early-1990s Poland, is a noble yet botched attempt at a family tragicomedy

Review: Treasure
Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in Treasure

On paper, nothing hinted at potential failure: the script was based on an award-winning book, Too Many Men by Lily Brett; the director and co-writer was Julia von Heinz, whose prior films had landed spots at the Venice Film Festival; and the cast included Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry as a father-daughter duo as well as Zbigniew Zamachowski, a Polish actor known for his roles in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours films. Plus, it was set in early-1990s Poland, a very picturesque landscape for any nostalgia-loving DoP, and discussed the important topic of post-Holocaust trauma and a very specific type of silence that shrouded the memories of the survivors.

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While dealing with all of this, Treasure – a Berlinale Special offering – intends to shine some light in the darkness with comedy notes that were supposed to arise from the misfit-type relationship between the father and daughter. Sadly, it fails miserably in this respect, also because it’s based on the unconvincing notion that these two are practically strangers and only meet for real during a trip to Poland.

There are more elements that are illogical or that probably worked on paper, and it feels as though it was actually an early draft of the script that was greenlit for shooting. As much as there is a nice chemistry between the two leads, they don’t work as a comedic duo, and the director doesn’t seem to have a knack for this genre either. This means that most of the scenes that are meant to elicit laughs actually make us cringe.

But what’s it all about? Ruth (Dunham), a US journalist in her mid-thirties, takes her father, Edek (Fry), who was an inmate in a Nazi death camp, to Poland so that they can visit the house he grew up in. She wants the trip to go exactly how she planned it, and only eats the oatmeal she has brought with her in ridiculous-looking jars, as part of her hyper-healthy and domineering lifestyle. Edek, recently widowed, wants to enjoy the journey and is open to having an adventure. The last thing he wants is to revisit traumatic memories, while Ruth obsessively reads books on the Holocaust and even gets a tattoo with a camp inmate number.

Together with a good-hearted local taxi driver (Zamachowski), they set off for Łódź, with their final destination being their family apartment, inhabited by a Polish family since the war. After discovering that the current owners possess some of the family’s belongings, like china and a bowl, Ruth wants to buy it off them for whatever price is offered – even though she said earlier that she’s almost broke – despite the protests of Edek, who again wants to keep the past in the past.

Apart from the noble goal of keeping the memory of the Holocaust’s horrors alive for the next generations, it’s difficult to understand why this Treasure was dug up for the screen. It feels like everyone involved did an honest job, but without having any deeper conviction or connection to the story – which, in its literary original, also involved the ghost of Rudolf Höss accompanying them on the trip, something that actually sounds like an inspired concept – or its potential themes. Not all that glitters is gold, apparently.

Treasure is a German-French co-production staged by Seven Elephants, Kings&Queens Filmproduktion and Haïku Films, and is sold internationally by FilmNation Entertainment.

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