Petra Seeger’s beautifully crafted documentary about neurobiologist Eric Kandel, “In Search of Memory,” interweaves experience and experiments, autobiography and science as seamlessly as the Nobel Prize winner’s same-titled book. This communality (and the sheer force of Kandel’s exuberant personality) transforms what could have been just another Holocaust memoir into a tutorial on how memory works to grant shape and coherence to an individual’s existence. Just as Kandel’s joyous spirit enlivens whatever it contemplates, the docu’s kinetic energy galvanizes scientific lectures and Passover Seders alike. “Search,” which opened Jan. 8 at Gotham’s IFC Center, will easily draw Jewish auds but deserves wider exposure.
On the occasion of his 50th wedding anniversary, Kandel and his family undertake a pilgrimage to the childhood places made memorable to them by their experiences during the Holocaust. As his wife, Denise, attempts to locate the subterranean passage in France that was meant to provide an escape route from the Catholic school that hid her, Kandel utilizes his wife’s tentative remapping of the space to chart the role of emotion and repetition in the process that separates long-term memory from short-term.
In Vienna, helmer Seeger uses theatrical reconstructions to trigger Kandel’s memory: Actors restage the moment when Kandel was playing with a battery-powered model car he had received for his 9th birthday, only to be interrupted by the arrival of leather-jacketed Nazis. Later, it’s a delightfully real woman who welcomes the present-day Kandel into the candy shop that once housed his father’s toy store, thrilled to meet him and tell him about the readers of his book who have visited the site. Reconciling his conflicting reactions to the city of his birth, Kandel concludes a lecture there by wistfully calling for a return to the rich cultural pollination between Jew and non-Jew that made Vienna a hotbed of intellectual and artistic creativity.
Docu follows the indefatigable 79-year-old as he scampers around a tennis court, lectures at sold-out venues (he’s known as the rock star of neuroscience) or meets with the young scientists who come from all over the world to work with him at his Columbia U. lab, his braying laugh as infectious as his obvious affection. At the same time, his simple scientific explanations and brilliantly colored computer tracings of the ever-evolving process of memory bring home the same vision — of continuous growth, expansion and connection — that informs his interactions with his fellow men.
Tech credits are quietly superb, Robert Winkler and Mario Masini’s lensing of nighttime New York streets mimicking the intricate byways of the mind.