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Two autumns ago, City Paper theater critic Ian Thal wrote a glowing review of Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, one of many for the one-man show that premiered in 2019 at Georgetown University. What you’re reading now is a review of the film adaptation of that play: Remember This, which has begun a limited run at select movie theaters across the country.
Almost nothing has changed between the two works. Nor has much changed between your local alt-weekly’s two reviews.
The film, like the stage production, stars one actor—the same one. That would be Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, who transforms himself into numerous characters as the story unfolds. Derek Goldman still directs, joined by cinematographer Jeff Hutchens, both making their narrative feature directorial debuts.
The set also remains essentially the same. The whole movie takes place on a soundstage, empty except for a wooden table and two chairs. On one of those chairs rest a few items of clothing—a suit jacket, a sweater vest, and a tie—which Strathairn takes on and off to convey the passage of time.
Remember This tells the story of Jan Karski (with writing credits still going to Goldman and Clark Young). Or rather, it tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of Karski, a young Polish man who stumbled into becoming an underground informant for his government during World War II, tasked with making the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust imaginable to the leaders of Allied countries.
Working alone, Strathairn takes on numerous characters in order to tell Karski’s story. The first one we meet is the actor himself. In his own American accent, he looks straight into the camera and asks: “We see what goes on in the world, don’t we?” He describes our modern world, filled with injustice, which leads him to another question: “Do we have a duty, a responsibility as individuals to do something?” Working against us, he observes, is our “infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”
We briefly meet the real Karski, who went on to become a Georgetown professor, in a clip taken from 1985’s Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour and 26-minute-long Holocaust documentary. Recounting what he experienced during the war, Karski breaks down into tears. That 1970 interview, we later learn, was the first time he agreed to speak about his wartime missions since the war ended 25 years earlier.
Strathairn then becomes the Polish-accented Karski. Narrating in the second person and often staring directly into camera, he recounts his childhood and his journey to becoming a courier for the Polish underground. In a particularly spine-chilling sequence, he recounts being captured by the Gestapo on a mission. Here, Strathairn switches between portraying Karski and a young Nazi. With the help of sound effects and clever choreography, Strathairn inflicts and suffers the same beating in turn.
After narrowly escaping the Gestapo and rehabilitating, Karski resumes his duties. This time around, he has the help of the Jewish underground. They smuggle him into the Warsaw Ghetto and the transit camp in Izbica, a stop on the way to the Belzec extermination camp, where he witnesses firsthand the Nazi Party’s efforts to annihilate the Jewish people. “I was told that these were human beings,” he says of the Nazis, “but they did not look like human beings.”
Karski brings his eyewitness accounts to the Polish, British, and U.S. governments. He meets with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who cannot believe that humanity is capable of such cruelty, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who does not ask a single follow-up question about the suffering of the Jews. These encounters leave Karski feeling defeated, though his accounts do eventually become fuel for international intervention.
The film adaptation of Remember This makes room for a few departures from the stage production. The film is shot in black and white, a decision that emphasizes the simplicity of the set—and the bleakness of the genocide at hand. Particularly enhancing are slow zooms in and out, which bring the viewer intimately eye to eye with Strathairn during his most affecting monologues.
The camera’s movement, though, doesn’t entirely mask the claustrophobic feeling of spending a 90-minute movie in a mostly empty room. Nor does it prevent Remember This, an intentionally quiet movie, from feeling slow at times.
In a world with half a dozen streaming platforms offering seemingly infinite options of stimulating content, Remember This asks for patience and commitment. In return, it offers an unforgettable one-man performance, a moving history lesson, and a difficult but illuminating probe into humanity’s capacity for cruelty, and for good.
In the film’s final minutes, Strathairn returns to his own voice. “What can we do?” he asks once more. “Do we as individuals have a responsibility to do something?” Remember This doesn’t provide any neat answers to those questions. It provides a reason to keep asking them.
Remember This screens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema starting Feb. 15 and premieres on PBS’s Great Performances on March 13.