David Strathairn delivers ‘tour de force’ performance as hero who gave first eyewitness report on Shoah to West

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Cate Marquis , Special to the Jewish Light

In “Remember This,” Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn gives a brilliant, tour-de-force performance as Jan Karski, a heroic Polish diplomat, soldier and Resistance fighter who was smuggled out of war-torn Europe to deliver the first eye-witness report of the Shoah to British leaders and FDR directly, while there was still time to stop it.

Karski delivered a first-hand report of what really was happening to Jews in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, although Western leaders failed to act. This gripping biographical film debuted at the 2022 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and has played a number of other films festivals, including Australia’s Jewish International Film Festival and now comes to the St. Louis International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 3-13.

Dramatic, startling and powerful, “Remember This” is a solo performance in which Strathairn portrays Karski as an older man, an academic on the faculty of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, recalling and reliving his wartime experiences. It is remarkable journey, which follows him from a young diplomat in the Polish government, to service in the Polish Army and as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. Escaping that, he signs on with the Polish Underground, where he becomes a courier carrying secrets across borders, enduring capture and torture, and smuggled out to carry out his greatest mission: to deliver the truth of the Shoah to the leaders of Western powers.

Audiences may remember Strathairn for his Oscar-nominated performance in “Good Night, and Good Luck” as journalist Edward R. Murrow, who stood up to McCarthyism, and for other roles. The actor has a gift for playing heroic figures, as he does here. Although Karski often refers to himself as “an insignificant little man,” he notes that his mission was of the greatest significance. Others would call Karski’s own life anything but insignificant and point to his remarkable bravery, someone who was honored in 1982 by Yad Vadem as “Righteous Among the Nations” and who was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012 (Karski died in 2000).

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Part of why Karski was chosen for his role as courier was his gift for languages and his excellent memory. Karski often refers to himself as a camera, a recorder, a witness recording all he sees and hears. To give his report to Western leaders greater strength, Karski had to be an eyewitness to what was happening, so he is smuggled into a ghetto and a concentration camp by members of the Jewish Polish Underground, where he sees harrowing and heartbreaking scenes.

Director/playwright Derek Goldman and co-director Jeff Hutchens crafted a dynamic film experience around Strathairn’s powerhouse performance. Using a few props, mostly a table and chairs, strikingly dramatic lighting, and sound effects with judicious use of music, Strathairn searingly reenacts Karski’s unique story and his risky and often terrifying experiences as a prisoner of war and a member of the Polish Resistance, slipping across borders, enduring beatings and escaping capture.

By filming in dramatic black and white, the drama both evokes the time period of World War II and allows the audience to focus more deeply on Strathairn’s performance. Near the film’s start, we see brief footage of the real Jan Karski, shot for the documentary “Shoah,” which brought his story to light.

“Remember This” is not filmed theater, but a recreation of the one-man play that Strathairn and Goldman created in 2014 for the 100th anniversary of Karski’s birth. Freed of that constraint, the camera moves and lighting changes have greater play in creating a cinematic experience that heightens the emotional power of the actor’s work.

“Remember This” is a must-see film, for its jaw-dropping story of Jan Karski, its inspiring performance by Strathairn and story-heightening visual techniques.

“Remember This” will be shown Monday, Nov. 7, at 6:30pm at the Galleria Cinema as part of the 2022 St. Louis International Film Festival, Nov. 3-13.