How much do we, the living, owe to them, the dead, and is it more or less than we owe to each other? The premise of well-known Slovakian director Martin Šulík’s gentle dramedy “The Interpreter” might sound schematic in its exploration of this impossible question in the context of the Holocaust. The late-middle aged son of a Nazi officer embarks on a road trip with his translator, an older Jewish Slovakian man who believes the officer murdered his family. It has the potential for a brazen combination of corniness and tastelessness, “Grumpy Old Men Do the Holocaust” or “Schindler’s Bucket List.” But the subtlety of the film’s elegant craft, the restraint of Šulík’s characterful screenplay, and the superb chemistry between the two lead actors, Peter Simonischek (“Toni Erdmann”) and Jiří Menzel (director of “Closely Watched Trains”), gives “The Interpreter” a respectful, quiet resonance.
Ali Ungar (Menzel), looking like a dapper tortoise in a neatly pressed mac, forever clutching a briefcase, makes his way from the train station in Vienna to a particular address. In the elevator, he removes a gun from his case and awkwardly shoves it, unfamiliar to his hand, into his coat pocket. He rings a doorbell and when Georg (Simonischek) answers, asks in the accented German of the non-native speaker, for “SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Graubner.” Georg blinks, but tells him that his father is dead, and only reluctantly lets Ali in when he asks to use his bathroom.
Once inside the gracious, book-lined Vienna apartment, Ali attempts to confront Georg with his father’s misdeeds: as a translator he has recently been working on Georg’s father’s account of his war, and has come across a passage he believes narrates the murders of his own parents. The gregarious Georg, whom we first see canoodling with his housekeeper-with-benefits, responds with bluff, unapologetic stonewalling, only really getting riled when Ali accuses him of anti-Semitism. The gun remains pocketed, but the men part on bad terms.
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So it’s a slight surprise, that points somewhat to his mercurial nature, when Georg shows up in Bratislava soon after and asks to engage Ali’s services as a translator. He has dredged up a store of letters his father sent him from his time in then-Czechoslovakia, and wants to see the places he mentions. Needing the money (one of the subtler unfairnesses “The Interpreter” outlines is how Georg’s life should seem one of such ease and material wealth as opposed to Ali’s) but also realizing he may get closer to his own answers this way, Ali agrees.
A lot of the first half of the film deals more directly in odd-couple comedy. Menzel’s performance is pinpoint-precise as the dignified and often disapproving Ali, and Simonischek is a wonderfully bearish bon vivant presence as Georg, making believable his knack for gathering strangers, especially women, into the orbit of his bonhomie. They each emerge as studies of wildly contrasting personalities that nonetheless were both formed by events and deeds over which they had no control, and that put them on opposite sides of the impassable divide between victim and perpetrator. As the portraits deepen, however, it becomes clear that, though relatively poorer, Ali’s life is in some ways the happier for being more principled and more peopled. His long, faithful marriage to his now-deceased wife, and his loving relationship with his principled, smart daughter (an excellent, flinty Zuzana Mauréry) are riches that Georg, lonely underneath all that good humor, has never experienced.
The more knockabout comedy gradually drains out and the mood becomes more melancholic and reflective. The cello-and-piano motif that’s a little overused as a “back on the road” cue in between incidents, takes on a sadder key. And the wide shots in Martin Štrba’s restrained, distinguished photography become wider, higher, further away, making Ali and Georg’s mission seem even smaller amid the vastness of the moral and historical territory they trundle through. Dramatic revelations and twists are avoided (until a final, unnecessary coda) in favor of the more truthful if less grandiose rhythms of real life. Even so, the minute ticking of this baggage-laden, adversarial relationship toward friendship gives the film its slender strand of optimism.
“Time heals all wounds” is a platitude usually trotted out for its comforting qualities. But in some cases, when the line between healing and forgetting is a blurred one, it can sound like a warning. Fairly soon, the Holocaust will have passed entirely from living memory, and at that point, should we consider ourselves “healed,” or are some wounds worth reopening in the name of remembrance? “The Interpreter” is an unusually measured attempt to contend with these intractable issues. Through its lovely performances, the film accesses a profound and topical reality about our relationship to history: We cannot visit the sins of the father on the son, but neither can we deny their legacy. Innocence, like guilt, must be earned.