A solo show that is transformed into a dazzling black-and-white ‘40s film noir, “Remember This” is also a devastating true story, a hero’s biography and a professional triumph for its star David Strathairn.
“Remember This” tells the story of Jan Karski, a Catholic Pole with a photographic memory, who as a resistance fighter in 1939 survived the Nazi and Russian occupation of his native Poland to be the messenger sent to alert world leaders in London and Washington about the literal extermination of Jews. And no one, not even the Supreme Court’s sole Jewish member, did anything.
“Remember,” in theaters Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, began in Georgetown University where Karski taught for 40 years. He died in 2000.
Strathairn credits “Remember” co-writer and co-director Derek Goldman, a performing arts professor at Georgetown U, with initiating the project originally as a 2014 centennial celebration of Karski’s birth.
“The initial concept,” Strathairn, 73, explained, “was Karski onstage with his students who were asking about his experience in the war. They became the characters that he was talking about.” In 2015 that production opened the Poland Museum of Jewish History.
Then it became a one-man show with Karski in his classroom and the audience his “students” which played off-Broadway last year.
The film version is stunning, a new interpretation in black-and-white with dramatic lighting and blackouts as the actor becomes various characters, complete with compelling accents. Strathairn credits co-director and cinematographer Jeff Hutchens.
“That was really a great, great device to be in black-and-white because in psychological terms, there is a light that’s the open time of his life and then he enters the darkness as he experiences going through the ghetto and the death camps working for the underground. Then it comes back to being almost out of the darkness.”
Strathairn, whose Best Actor Oscar nomination was for “Good Night and Good Luck,” another black-and-white movie, had no trouble researching Karski to prepare for this, the most indelible role of his career.
“There’s a treasure of photographic material, his testimony and his ‘novel’ which is actually a chronology of his experiences. He wrote in 1944, ‘Story of a Secret State.’ And then there’s also a wonderful biography by E. Thomas Wood and Stanisław M. Jankowski, ‘Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.’
“Plus there’s a wealth of anecdotal information from his students and his colleagues and people who knew him at Georgetown University. So I was really fortunate.
“We were all fortunate,” he added, “to have that expansive library of information about him to develop the piece.”
“Remember This” opens Friday