Review: 'Treasure' or What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

: Kurt Loder on

Not everybody was totally taken with Lena Dunham when she appeared on the movie scene in 2010. She came bearing her first feature, "Tiny Furniture," which she had written, directed and starred in -- at the age of 23. The movie heralded the arrival of a bright new filmmaker, and it was a critical hit. But there was some grumbling about it, too. To make the picture, Dunham had called on the resources of her well-to-do family, and cast both her mother, Laurie, a noted artist, and her younger sister, Grace, as characters; she also shot the film in the family's loft in downtown New York.

Two years later, Dunham launched herself into the TV stratosphere with the comedy series "Girls," which had a zeitgeisty five-year run on HBO. The show was stocked with such future stars as Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet and Adam Driver, and it was a sensation.

Dunham has successfully carried on directing, writing and acting, and now, having weathered serious personal problems (prescription drug addictions and debilitating illnesses -- including endometriosis, which compelled her to have a hysterectomy), she is back in front of the camera in "Treasure" -- a steadfastly serious picture, directed by Julia von Heinz, about the endlessly long cultural reach of the Holocaust.

Dunham, whose mother is Jewish, may have a special emotional connection to this material (the movie is based on a novel by Australian writer Lily Brett), but the movie is actually a showcase for two powerful performances. Dunham plays Ruth, a 36-year-old divorced New York journalist and amateur Holocaust scholar who travels to Poland to piece together the nightmarish life of her father, Edek (Stephen Fry), who was imprisoned at Auschwitz along with Ruth's mother, who has recently died. Having journeyed through the valley of death, Edek, now a New Yorker himself, wants only to bask in whatever sunshine life might have left to provide. He has come along on this journey into the dark past reluctantly, baffled by his daughter's obsession with the fate of the Jews in the Nazi nightmare.

"What are you looking for?" he asks her. "To see where I'm from," she says. "You come from America," Edek tells her.

Arriving at Auschwitz -- now an eerie tourist stop, complete with postcards -- Ruth bridles at an attendant who asks if she and her father have come to tour the museum. "It's not a museum," Ruth angrily responds. "The Museum of Modern Art is a museum. The Guggenheim's a museum. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a museum. Auschwitz is a death camp."

Walking around the grounds of Auschwitz brings back awful images. "Here is where I said goodbye to my family," Edek says at one unmarked spot. (It's indelibly marked in his memory.)


Ruth is saddened by the fact that her father never broached the horrors of Auschwitz with her when she was younger. "You never talked about the barracks, or the lice, or the bunks, or the smell of burning flesh," she says. "But mom couldn't hide it with her little smile. She woke up every single night screaming." Edek tries to comfort Ruth, but she's beyond his reach. "We've gone our whole lives without talking about it," she says. "Why don't we just not talk about it till we're both dead."

The soul-rending dislocations of war are evoked in a scene in which Edek and his daughter pay a visit to the house he once lived in with his young wife ("such a lovely, lovely girl," he remembers, staring into the past). The building is now occupied by a family of unfriendly Poles: as the property of Jews, it had been allotted to them by the Germans during the war, and since the real owners never returned to reclaim it, this family has remained in residence. Edek is heartbroken about such a brazen injustice; Ruth, however, is outraged. But what can be done?

Dunham has been a pioneer in struggling for the acceptance of women's bodies that happen not to be media-ideal. Here, at age 38 and heavier than in earlier years, she uses her frankly matronly dimensions to communicate -- without facial elaboration -- a sorrowful truth about her character. We see Ruth in a hotel ballroom observing a group of sleek young women in sherbet-colored spandex costumes rehearsing a dance routine for a beauty pageant. Dunham's face gives away nothing, but we can feel Ruth's despair -- and imagine that it may have been lifelong.

"Treasure" is unlikely to become a huge hit on the order of almost anything else Dunham might have chosen to do instead. But it doesn't have to. It only has to be moving and memorable, and it is.

To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.


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