After viewing Everything Is Illuminated, I fully expected to discover that the director was a native of Ukraine and that the film was shot on location there, which provides the setting for the movie. The film is haunted by the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, like nightmares of the director’s subconscious imprinted onto the celluloid, à la some of the films of Roman Polanski. I was surprised to find out that the director is Liev Schreiber, a 38-year-old American of German descent who is making his directorial debut with this movie after having acted in such big Hollywood productions as all three Scream films, The Manchurian Candidate and Ransom. And even though a craggily, old Ukrainian grandfather tells one of the characters to “look out the window at the beautiful Ukrainian countryside,” the movie was filmed in Prague.
My first reaction to this information was disillusionment and a sense that the film lost a lot of its power and credibility. However, I now realize that this is not the case. Schreiber, his connections to Ukraine unbeknownst to us, resembles the American in the film who traverses the Ukrainian countryside looking for clues about his own identity, and, in the process, unravels the history of that war-torn country. The film assumes a certain freshness from being directed by one who has little cultural or ethnic ties to Ukraine. And Schreiber’s ability to construct this illusion attests to his directorial dexterity, not sleight of hand.
Everything Is Illuminated is the story of Jonathan Foer (Elijah Wood), an American Jew who travels to Ukraine looking for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is known as “The Collector,” picking up scraps of life here and there and putting them in Ziploc baggies, superficially to hang on a wall and collect dust, but more importantly, to stand as reminders of the people in his life. All he has of his grandfather’s is a bug encased in amber and a picture of him and the woman that saved him from the Nazis, Augustine (. Jonathan travels to Ukraine in search of Augustine and spends the next several days in the company of Alex (Eugene Hutz), who serves as Jonathan’s linguistic portal, his curmudgeon grandfather (Boris Leskin), known simply as Grandpa, and Grandpa’s hyper “seeing-eye” dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior. They are searching for Trachimbrod, the town where Jonathan’s grandfather grew up, but nobody seems to have ever heard of this obscure place. With their arrival at the town, comes the climax of the self-realizations that have been crystallizing on the long journey.
Each person has their own ostensible and fateful reason for being on the trip. Jonathan wants to know more about his grandfather. But who travels hundreds of miles to a strange land where they don’t speak the language without having some greater, spiritual purpose to fulfill? Alex and Grandpa are in it for the money, but Jonathan’s determined search for his grandfather makes Alex realize how little he knows his own. And the back story of the movie’s most interesting character, Grandpa, is first revealed in one of the film’s most striking moments, both visually and emotionally: Grandpa standing at the edge of verdant hills strewn with broken old war machinery, which induce memories of his own horrid experiences in the war. Much of the film subsequently deals with filling in the rest of Grandpa’s story, providing a context for his bitterness and anti-Semitism.
Everything is Illuminated is funny, endearing, touching, and, as all good movies must be, revealing of human nature. Its biggest flaw is that it becomes a blabbermouth at the end, explaining things that were already silently revealed and gradually undermining their poignancy.
However, the film creates characters and images interesting and effective enough to bag up and pin on a wall of memories where they will hang in static existence next to the other tokens of cinema.
Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Staff Writer