I have a friend who did not learn her father had escaped a Nazi death camp until she was in her twenties. Because he was a Ukrainian Catholic, it did not occur to her that he might be subject to Nazi depredations, and her father, quite understandably, chose not to volunteer stories of his painful past. Only after my friend’s husband started asking questions was everything illuminated.
I thought of my friend and her father as I watched Everything Is Illuminated, written and directed by Liev Schreiber. Loosely based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film follows an American Jew, named Jonathan Safran Foer, seeking information about the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi occupation. After he travels to Odessa, however, Jonathan discovers that the (dis)organization he has hired to trace his grandfather’s Ukrainian past consists of a vocabulary-challenged translator named Alex, a Soviet-built tin-can of a car driven by Alex’s grandfather who claims to be blind, and a “delusional” dog that Grandfather insists is his “seeing-eye bitch.” The absurdist flavor of this scenario is intensified by the radical contrast between Jonathan and Alex. Though the two are similar in age, Jonathan’s rigid, slow-moving body is always clothed in a black suit and tie, while Alex dresses and swaggers like a stand-in for the “two wild-and-crazy guys” made famous by Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd on Saturday Night Live. As the movie slowly unfolds, however, we discover that Jonathan and Alex have much more in common than they realize. The title Everything Is Illuminated, we realize, applies not just to Jonathan’s discoveries about his Ukrainian grandfather, but also to Alex’s discoveries about his Ukrainian grandfather.
The film submits its viewers to a process of illumination as well. Just as both Jonathan and Alex undergo a paradigm shift as information comes to light, we are submitted to a paradigm shift as the film switches genres on us. The first half is surreal comedy reminiscent of Amélie (2001): odd close-ups and camera angles match odd characterizations and actions, a protagonist’s voice-over commenting as though nothing were out of the ordinary. Alex supplies the voice-over in an accented English inflected with charming malapropisms: Grandpa’s dog was “retrieved from a home for forgetful dogs” rather than “forgotten dogs”; named “Sammy Davis Junior Junior,” the dog wears a tee-shirt bearing a hand written title, “Officious Seeing Eye Bitch.” Alex asks Jonathan things like “Were you able to manufacture the ZZZZZs?” and “Were you proximal with your grandfather?”
The last half of the film, however, gets increasingly serious, tragically so, making the film feel like a visual malapropism: the two halves do not seem to fit together. Roger Ebert reports that the first time he saw Everything Is Illuminated, “I was hurtling down the tracks of a goofy ethnic comedy when suddenly we entered dark and dangerous territory.” While some might see this discontinuity as the film’s weakness, it may be regarded better as its strength. For just as Jonathan and Alex are experiencing illumination about their pasts, so we as audience experience illumination about the past of the film: absurd elements in the first half make much more sense once we get to the end.
The film hints at the relationship between past and present with its opening shot: a cricket surrounded by amber fills the screen. The camera cuts to a close-up of an old photograph, implying a metaphoric match between the two shots: a photograph preserves a person’s past the way amber preserves its contents. Next, as the camera pans over multiple old photos, we hear Alex’s heavily accented English scathingly disparage not only the Jews who hire his services but also the past: “I was of the opinion that the past it is passed, and that all that is not now should remain buried along the side of our memories.” Ironically, as he makes this statement, a huge sheet of paper fills the screen as he writes the words we hear, establishing a parallel with the film’s opening shot: a written document preserves the past like a bug in amber. Alex’s act of preservation indicates he has changed his opinion, which is confirmed when he next states, “But this was before the commencement of a very rigid search, before I encountered the collector, Jonathan.”
Alex’s malapropism, “rigid search,” seems appropriate as the shot dissolves from his written document to the back of Jonathan’s rigid, black-clad body standing before a gravestone: another object that memorializes the past. The epitaph, bearing a Star of David, reads "Safran Foer, 1921–1989.” While this image of Jonathan seems somber enough, huge coke-bottle glasses, magnifying the already large blue eyes of actor Elisha Wood (of Frodo fame), give Jonathan a comical look, especially when we see a flashback of him as a child—at the bedside of his dying grandfather—wearing the same outrageously huge glasses and somber black tie. When the grandfather dies, the bespectacled boy grabs an orange-colored pendant on the nightstand, and we immediately recognize the cricket embedded in amber. It has no meaning, either to the boy or to us, however, until the film returns us to Jonathan’s present life. Now, fifteen years later, Jonathan sits beside the same bed, in the same room, watching his grandmother die. While appearing to turn her back to him (a significant gesture, as we shall see), the grandmother reaches for a photograph of the past. As she hands it to Jonathan, we see his grandfather as a young man standing in traditional Ukrainian dress beside a young woman who wears the amber pendant around her neck. The photograph sends Jonathan on a search to find this person who, he is told, saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
Though this is all quite serious, Jonathan is made humorous by his next move: just as he took the pendant from his dead grandfather’s bedside, he now takes a set of false teeth from his dead grandmother’s bedside. We witness both items placed in zip-lock bags and pinned to a wall that contains hundreds of other bagged items: photos, a pair of men’s briefs, crude drawings, a used condom, and so on. Jonathan, "the Collector,” seems to be obsessive-compulsive, and throughout the film we see him whip out plastic bags from his fanny-pack in order to preserve items that cross his path: a bottle of hand lotion from the train lavatory, a bit of potato from his first Ukrainian dinner, a handful of dirt.
This is the scenario by which a man obsessed with collecting trivial elements to memorialize his past encounters a Ukrainian man obsessed with trivial elements that make him feel up-to-date with a not-so-trendy American present: "I am beloved,” Alex tells us, "of American movies and hip hop music.” The contrast in their perspectives is anticipated by views from the car as Alex and his grandfather drive to the Odessa train station to rendezvous with Jonathan. The Ukrainian past is repeatedly juxtaposed with an Americanized present: a view of the famous Odessa steps, made iconic by Sergei Eisenstein in his 1925 film Potemkin, follows a shot of MacDonald’s yellow arches; after showing a woman sitting at a bus stop wearing a traditional "Babushka” scarf, the camera moves up over the hedge behind her to capture adolescents doing tricks on skateboards.
Like the head of Janus—one face turned to the past, the other to the future—the tin-can of a car, containing the differently directed faces of Jonathan and Alex, drives through Odessa and out into the Ukrainian countryside. Schreiber emblematizes their Janus-like perspectives with several repeated techniques. Numerous times he isolates Jonathan in the mise-en-scene with his back to the camera, whereas Alex almost always is facing the camera, often aggressively walking toward it. And several times Schreiber fills the screen with a view out the car window that frames the side-view mirror—such that we see in the mirror what is behind the car, where it has just gone, framed by a view of where the car is heading. This simultaneity of perspectives suggests that, in order to have a complete view of one’s direction in life, one needs to see the relationship between past and present. One needs to see it.
The importance of seeing is mediated through an eye motif that touches all three primary characters: the film’s first shot of Alex has an extreme close-up of only one eye as he writes his renunciation of the past; Jonathan’s poor vision of the present is exaggerated through his almost neurotic dependence on his glasses; and the fiction of blindness perpetuated by Alex’s grandfather is abetted by the dark wrap around sunglasses he wears as he drives. When they all come together in the Soviet-era car, however, they refine each other’s vision, both Jonathan and Alex being given new perspectives on their respective grandfathers.
Alex’s new perspective comes only moments after we see Grandfather putting drops into his eyes. Jonathan lays out a map on a hotel dining table and points to his grandmother’s "shtetl.” When Alex doesn’t understand, Grandfather states, "It’s a village,” right before Jonathan explains “It’s Yiddish; it means village.” Alex stares at his grandfather for an inordinately long time, wondering how this man who relentlessly spits out anti-Semitic slurs could know a Yiddish word. The next one to stare is "blind” Grandfather, who seems to go into a trance when he sees the photograph of Jonathan’s grandfather with the pendant-adorned woman. When Alex asks him whether Ukrainians were “anti-Semitic before the war,” Grandfather remains quiet as he continues to stare at the photograph. We, the audience, realize that something has been illuminated, but, as yet, we aren’t quite sure what.
As the film continues, however, we see more of Grandfather’s eyes as he witnesses things on their journey. Several times we are given extreme close-ups of his eyes as he—inexplicably to Alex—seems to recognize things in the countryside. When a shot of his eyes in the rear view mirror fills the screen, we surmise that Grandfather is beginning to see his past: the place from which he has come. Indeed, immediately after we see his eyes in the rear view mirror, Grandfather suddenly stops the car to walk among abandoned World War II armaments rusting in a field. The shot dissolves to the same sepia-tone color of Jonathan’s old photograph—letting us know that Grandfather is, in fact, picturing his own past. But, as yet, it is not the complete picture: the sepia-toned shot pans across several sets of legs only from the calf down. Whenever the camera pans right we see feet with either outworn shoes or none at all; when it pans left we see the crisp leather of spit-shined military boots. Going back and forth several times, the camera seems to symbolize a Janus-like moment during the War: the vision of German soldiers versus that of their Ukrainian victims. Confirming this, the shot cuts to the midriff of a German cocking a gun, then to the midriff of a ragged suit, the camera tilting up until we see a Star of David at its breast. Finally, the camera is at face-level but all we see is one eye, as in our first vision of Alex, this one looking over the barrel of a gun as it shoots. The screen goes white, as it often does in the film at moments of illumination, and we hear Alex’s distant voice call “Grandfather!”
“Aha!” we think, “everything is illuminated! Alex’s grandfather must have been a Nazi collaborator during the war, and this trip is confronting him with the enormity of his complicity. His past explains his anti-Semitic present!”
While Alex is becoming increasingly disturbed about his grandfather, Jonathan still has learned nothing about his. The next day, however, Grandfather stops the tinny car by a tiny house and says "There: Ask there!” As Alex walks to the cottage through a gorgeous field of man-high sunflowers, we realize that the camera watches him from behind, hinting that Alex is heading toward an illumination of his past even as he inquires about Jonathan’s. He asks a woman on the porch the question he has posed to numerous others: “Have you ever heard of Trachimbrod?”—the village of Jonathan’s grandfather. After much prodding, the woman finally answers “You are here. I am it.” This enigmatic response is explained only after the three travelers enter the cottage and see labeled boxes covering an entire wall, from floor to ceiling. The camera pans the labels, just as it did those of Jonathan’s floor-to-ceiling zip-lock bags at the film’s start, until we read the words Spectacles . . . Menorah . . . Dust. Drawing us back to the eye motif, the spectacles, juxtaposed with the other two words, anticipates what soon will be illuminated: due to Nazi guns, over one thousand Trachimbrod Jews, represented by the Menorah, are now dust. These boxes are, indeed, Trachimbrod—filled with remnants collected by the strange woman after Nazis destroyed her village.
We then are given a shot that graphically matches a shot from early in the film: we see Jonathan’s back as he faces the wall of boxes, standing in the exact same location on the screen when he faced the wall of his wacky bedroom collection. In both instances, Jonathan faces a wall memorializing the past, the repetition iconically reminding us of Jews that face the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The connection between the two scenes is made explicit when Alex says of the woman’s wall, “She is also a collector.” This present somber moment thus comments upon the film’s comic past. Jonathan’s seemingly obsessive impulse to collect odd mementos helps keep the past alive. The dead live again in the memory of survivors.
The second wall-facing scene soon becomes more inclusive: the camera pulls back from its focus on Jonathan’s back so that, when more of the wall is exposed, we now see the backs of Alex and Grandfather facing the boxes. Indeed, they are soon to face their own past.
Before their illumination, though, comes Jonathan’s. It turns out that the photographed woman with the pendant was actually his grandfather’s first wife, killed by the Nazis several days after his grandfather left Trachimbrod to establish a home in America. Significantly, Jonathan gets this vision of his grandfather’s past only after the woman collector removes the glasses from his face and says his grandfather’s name, “Safron”—indicating how much he looks like his forebear. Soon thereafter, Jonathan catches a cricket, placing it in his glasses case before dropping it in a baggie. When Alex asks why, Jonathan states, “I’m afraid sometimes I’ll forget.” Then, for the first time in the film, Jonathan cleans his glasses. Finally seeing the import of the cricket in amber, Jonathan collects a new cricket to serve as a memento of his (in)sight.
In contrast, Alex’s vision is still murky. Grandfather seems to know the Trachimbrodan collector, but he will not speak to her until the two younger men go outside. As they wait on the porch, Alex gets unusually testy when Jonathan points out that his tee-shirt is "inside-out.” Truculently protesting that he does not understand this term “inside-out,” Alex seems to chaff under the realization that Grandfather’s secret past may turn his own present life inside-out.
Finally, everything is illuminated. We discover that Grandfather was a Trachimbrod Jew left for dead by the Nazis. The woman collector had watched him extricate himself from a pile of bodies and then run away, leaving behind his Star of David as he will leave behind his Jewish identity. And thus, once again, a comic element from early in the film is now explained: Grandfather’s absurd proclamations of blindness, like his anti-Semitic proclamations, illustrate his willed blindness to his own past.
In radical contrast to Grandfather’s rejection of the past, the Trachimbrodan collector rejects the present. When we first see her she is washing clothes with an old-fashioned scrubbing board. Later, never having been in a car before, she refuses to ride to the site of Trachimbrod, resolutely walking as the men’s car follows her at a snail’s pace. Finally, she asks the men, “Is the war over?” Significantly, the person who answers is Grandfather. As he moves closer to say “Yes; it is over,” we sense that he has moved closer to his own Trachimbrodan past. After all, this woman "is” Trachimbrod. Grandfather’s own war with the past "is over.” As a result, he dies in blissful peace later that night, eyes fully open until his son gently closes them.
It is now up to the two young men, Alex and Jonathan, to reconcile the present with the past, balancing between the extremes of two Trachimbrod survivors: a grandfather blind to the past and a woman blind to the present. Schreiber symbolizes their balance with a series of significant shots. Ready to depart at the Odessa train station, Jonathan kisses Grandfather’s “Seeing-Eye Bitch,” and Alex accepts Jonathan’s Star of David pendant. Back in America, Jonathan walks toward the camera through an airport tunnel, as though finally exiting his tunnel-vision over the past. Once in the airport lobby, he repeatedly stops to look at the Americans around him: those who people his present. Astute film viewers will see that the female gate attendant Jonathan notices is played by the same actress who served as a cook in a Ukrainian hotel; a young boy holding a mother’s hand had been a goat herder in the old country; airport security guards are the same actors who played Ukrainian construction workers. Thus, in a nice bit of filmmaking, Schreiber not only brings together Jonathan’s Ukrainian past with his American present, but he brings the film’s eye motif to bear on his audience, for only observant viewers will notice the doublings that make the past of the film relevant to its present moment.
The film ends with a graphic match cut that aligns the two men. Jonathan stands once again in front of his grandfather’s grave, and we are given a close-up on his hand holding dirt he took from the site of Trachimbrod. We see the hand pour dirt on the grave, but then, as the camera pulls back, we discover it is now Alex’s hand pouring dirt on his grandfather’s grave. Like that of Safron Foer, Grandfather’s grave is marked with a Star of David, and Alex wears not only a black suit and tie, like Jonathan’s, but also a yarmulke, marking him as a Jew.
Alex finally has embraced the past, confirmed by the memoir he writes in ink as black as his clothes: “I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside looking out. . . . Like you say: inside-out.”
And we might say something similar about this charmingly quirky film: it is a memorial to the past in which everything is illuminated in the light on the screen; for, in the hands of good filmmakers, the insight will out.
Just as Schreiber closed his film with a dedication—“For Alex, 1906–1993”—I close this essay with a dedication:
For John Kowaliw, born in the Ukraine, 1923; died in Pennsylvania 21 June 2006. For him, everything is illuminated.
Crystal Downing is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.