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​Von Heinz Brings Dunham and Fry to Look for ‘Treasure’

Cinema | June 24th, 2024

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

German filmmaker Julia von Heinz aims for the poignant and the sincere in “Treasure,” starring Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry as daughter and father travelers coming to grips with the terrible past and their strained relationship. Based on Australian writer Lily Brett’s semi-autobiographical novel “Too Many Men,” the adaptation has, in no small measure due to its blend of the tragic and the comic, divided viewers and critics. Set at the beginning of the 1990s, the story unfolds primarily as a reluctant road trip, as Dunham’s dour, divorced journalist Ruth Rothwax coaxes papa Edek to trace the steps he and his family members took to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Von Heinz favors character over plot. Much of “Treasure” fleshes out the stark contrasts between the introverted Ruth and the more gregarious Edek. Fry’s largely credible Polish-accented English, interspersed with dialogue conducted in Edek’s native tongue, works as a reminder to the viewer and to Ruth that her inability to understand any Polish alienates her from a great deal of the spoken communication for which Edek and others must serve as translators. One of Ruth’s principal goals is to learn about her family’s past. She does not initially realize the extent to which Edek might prefer to avoid stirring up such painful memories.

At one point, the movie — which von Heinz co-wrote with John Quester, her spouse— was going to be called “Iron Box,” but the much broader “Treasure” carries with it multiple meanings. The most obvious of these interpretations is the metaphor for the work-in-progress connection between parent and child, a suggestion, affirmed in the last act, that no physical object or monetary wealth can compete with the riches of family love. Obviously, the title also refers to things left behind when Edek and his family were forced from their home by the Nazis. Ruth is willing to overpay for the teapot, overcoat, and silver bowl that remained in the vacated rooms.

It is certainly something of a coincidence that von Heinz’s movie arrives in theaters just before Jesse Eisenberg’s “A Real Pain.” Eisenberg’s second feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and shares with “Treasure” the tragicomic balancing act of an emotionally mismatched pair of relatives traveling to Poland and reckoning with the impact of the Holocaust on family survivors. Both movies respectfully take on the heaviness of scenes that unfold at concentration camp memorial sites. Both movies include the stark contrast of interpersonal opposition: one in the role of the gregarious charmer and the other a rigid, tightly-wound worrier. Both films also feature scenes featuring current occupants of a one-time residence.

“Treasure,” however, drills down on the latter of those parallels, fashioning its big reveal around one more iteration of the film’s title. It is also much more austere than “A Real Pain,” in which writer-director-performer Eisenberg handles the dangerous and delicate matter of braiding humor and discomfort more adroitly than von Heinz manages in the steel-gray “Treasure.” While I would not go as far as Leslie Helperin, who calls “Treasure” a “an inept, ill-made mess … muddled and misbegotten,” the movie most certainly could have used a slightly sharper pair of scissors to trim the 112-minute running time and step up the pacing.       

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