Asemi-scripted documentary starring the filmmaker’s mother, “Does Memory Dissolve in Water?” follows 74-year-old Solange Najman as she exercises a rather peculiar privilege of being a concentration camp survivor: three weeks of taking the waters in Evian, paid for by the German government. An interesting if not completely successful experiment, in which the lines between acting and spontaneous reminiscence are uncomfortably blurred, Charles Najman’s leisurely docu boasts a few extremely powerful passages along with moments of scalding irony.
Solange, deported from Lodz to Auschwitz at age 20 and liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945, is a survivor and a trouper to boot. Her enthusiasm ranges from infectious to annoying. After celebrating the 50th anniversary of their liberation, Solange and her three closest girlfriends take a train journey to the site of the camp, after which they head to Evian, where the German government foots the bill for a thermal “cure” every two years.
Some of the black humor underlying inadvertent double-entendres is mind-boggling. Solange, catching up with a staffer at Evian, asks diplomatically whether many former deportees are on the premises this season. The woman replies , “You haven’t been here for two years – there’s a natural process of elimination.” A popular mineral water slogan known to every soul in Gaul is “Drink and eliminate!” Solange improvises a manic commercial of her own.
Then there’s the moment when Solange lowers herself into a tub and the young attendant says, “I’m going to activate the carbon gas now – is that OK?” What isn’t even touched upon is the fact that these health resorts are in Evian and Vichy. During the war, Vichy instituted harsher anti-Jew laws than Germany did, yet France never offered reparations to victims of roundups and deportation. (Germany began this form of reparation after 1952.)
A clotheshorse and a bit of a ham, Solange hasn’t the slightest trepidation about singing, dancing or crying for her son’s camera. Joy mixed with guilt at being alive, at having survived when others perished, is omnipresent. Solange’s true story of her mother’s heroic system for shielding a memento throughout the camp ordeal is magnificent.
A questionable device is the addition of Jean-Chretien Silbertin-Blanc, a professional thesp who played the clueless title character in “Augustin.” Presumably intended as a sort of living bridge between past and present, he stumbles through the proceedings, a depressed stick-in-the-mud listening to heartbreaking testimony, without adding a trace of narrative oomph.
Lensing is rarely better than adequate, but given the material, that’s a minor point.