Repressed memories released - and shared

Finn Taylor, whose new film is reportedly the result of five years of careful research and writing, is doing double duty here. He's dramatizing the wartime memories of Herbert Heller (Stephen Lang as an adult, Luke David Blumm as a youth), a real life Holocaust survivor who kept mum about them for sixty years, till the end of his life. The film bookends these recollections, which are vivid and specific, with another, touching but lower-keyed tale of a relationship that develops between Heller and Abbey (Elsie Fisher), a traumatized young person who's part of a documentary team assigned to record him and winds up being the one who inspires him to open up.

The two people, the bearer of long-hidden memories of the Holocaust and the troubled teen, have crossed paths in a hospital in the film's opening scene without knowing it. Their two stories are both worthy of interest but can't compete on the same level. On the one hand, however often we've been shown Jews instructed to stitch stars of David on their clothes (Heller's mother proudly used fine knots and silk thread), then abused by locals in Prague and German soldiers when so adorned; or the terrifying roundup for the camps; surviving and watching family members struggle and disappear - the specificity of it is as compelling, even addictive, as ever. On the other hand, though we can appreciate that Heller is drawn to open up to Abbey because of her sensitivity and vulnerability, the tale she has to tell of youthful misdirection is no match for the Holocaust, and she holds back on telling her story a little too long as well.

No matter: we get the point. We may know from Taylor's earlier work Dream with the Fishes that suicide is a subject in which he has a personal interest. We understand that sharing secrets can be an intimate way of bonding, and survival guilt one of the strongest reasons for keeping them. Avenue of the Giants is an ambitious film. It's opening, the room with the little camera and the lady who seems bored to whom Heller is submitting himself, seems mundane. It's surprising when full-on recreations of Prague in the 1940's begin. There's a mixture of English and German that violates credibility. But the Czechoslovakia segments are beautifully done and feel thoroughly authentic.

The 12-year-old Herbert has a strong bond with both his mother (Stella Stocker) and his father (Slavko Sobin). He is also vibrant and energetic, an instinctive survivor. At first they are shipped to the propaganda camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt), where there is a false pretense of prisoner self-government and safety, and musicians are brought to play while the prisoners work. The family is not separated. Young Herbert is given a job as a gardener’s apprentice. An astonishing moment arrives when mother and father and brother are taken away to be shipped to Auschwitz, the death camp, and Herbert - held back because he's proven a hard worker and speaks good German - begs the guard to be allowed to go, and it's granted.

At Auschwitz the boy gets assigned to a first aid station, where there is water. Drinking a lot of it suppresses his hunger and - helps him survive. Survival tips provided by other prisoners include claiming you're younger than you are, and feigning energy and strength even when you're exhausted. And Herbert thrives, and seems to have a lot of energy anyway. He is capable of quick thinking and has the chutzpah to survive the maniacal judgment of Dr. Mengele, who is vividly recreated here, and avoid the ovens.

Herbert escapes from a death march in the snow with a bundle given him by a man named Ullmann: it contains a set of civilian clothes he can put on over his concentration camp stripes. Thus disguised, he follows the troops to find the way to a railway station, where he jumps on a train posing as a German passenger by calling for his mother in German. He returns thus to Prague, and is hidden in the attic for the duration of the war by a woman who was always friendly. He must remain in the attic even in air raids, because neighbors would report him if he showed himself. The whole trajectory of young Herbert's survival and escape is astonishing.

That's as far as we get to go in the detailed and excellent flashbacks. What Herbert did when the war ended, and how he got to America and became a beloved citizen of Marin County, California and owner of a popular children’s toy and apparel shop, we do not find out - or anything about what it was like for the adult Herbert to go on keeping mum about his tumultuous and horrific teenage experiences for sixty years.

Herbert Heller's flashback memories in Avenue of the Giants have something in common with Lajlos Koltai's Fateless (2005), also about a teenage boy who survived the camps and returned to his home town, in his case Budapest. But the latter was based on the famous 2002 autobiographical novel by the Nobelist Imre Kertész, and contains a great deal more detail. Herbert Heller may have provided a lot more information in his recorded Holocaust reminiscences than is given here, but he did't write a book about them, so his information comes through as more fragmentary - as it is in Avenue of the Giants.

The title refers to the Northern California redwood park, a setting for several key scenes, thus underlining a very particular American baseline for this film, also reportedly Finn Taylor's own home base. The atmospheric flashback sequences were produced under the aegis of Prague's Stillking Films, represented by David Minkowski and Matthew Stillman, and shooting was in Prague and various other Czech towns, as well as the actual sight of the Teresin camp. The film is a little bit schizophrenic, but it pays off.

It's always worthwhile and necessary to tell Holocaust stories to new generations; not many living survivors remain. It's a long time since Fateless came out in 2005. And though not as ruch a tale as Fateless, this new film has its own story to tell about the burden of memory and the healing process of sharing secrets.

For more of Heller's story, see this 2020 article in The Jewish News of Northern California which shows him, at 91, posing with his family of 17. (He died last year, at 93.)

Avenue of the Giants, 100 mins., debuted at The Hamptons Oct. 6, 2023, and was screened for this review as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. It's expected to be released in 2024.