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15 June 2024updated 17 Jun 2024 1:12pm

Treasure: Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry’s inconsistent Holocaust film

This conspires to be both a father-daughter road trip movie and an exploration of the traumatic legacy of the genocide. It fulfils neither brief.

By Leaf Arbuthnot

The problems with Treasure begin when Stephen Fry opens his lavishly bearded mouth, moments after the film’s start. Out booms that familiar, Garricky voice, only it’s laden with a Polish accent so thick he could be playing a Bond villain. Fry proceeds to explain to a waiting Lena Dunham what caused him to miss his flight to Warsaw – “I went to McDonald’s for the hunger”. He then more usefully tells her (and us) the kind of film we’re in for: “This is special daughter-father trip.”

Based on the novel by the Australian writer Lily Brett, and inspired by real events, Treasure conspires to be both a family road trip movie, featuring the usual bonding, score-settling and japes, and an exploration of the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust. (It is co-produced by Dunham, who recently learned she has relatives who died in the Holocaust.) It fulfils neither brief particularly well, but nor does it do such a bad job the film could fairly be described as an embarrassment for those involved.

The year is 1991. Dunham plays Ruth, a 36-year-old journalist from New York whose life has fallen apart after the death of her mother. She has left her husband (we’re told he’s very good looking), and organised a trip, in time-honoured American fashion, to reconnect with her European roots. Along for the ride is her father Edek (Fry), who, we learn, was sent to Auschwitz with his family as a young man, and was the only one to survive.

He has spent the past 40 years in America, avoiding talking about the past, an impulse Ruth mulishly refuses to understand. When he is reluctant to get on a Polish train, for instance – he’s been on one before – she displays the myopia that will plague her for much of the film, and complains that he’s laying waste to her well-laid plans.

With a Polish driver under their employ to ferry them around, Ruth and Edek soon get down to the business of learning what happened to their family before and during the war. But sequences in which the pair visit a significant site – the wall of the Warsaw ghetto, say – are intercut with lighter, more sitcom-esque scenes that flesh out who Edek and Ruth are, and why they get snippy with one another.

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Ruth, we discover, has a quasi-eating disorder: while her father contentedly tucks into the hotel breakfast, she eats from plastic boxes of seeds that she has lugged over from New York. Edek, meanwhile, is a committed flirt; when an opportunity arises for a one-night stand with an attractive Polish interpreter, he seizes it. Later, he asks his daughter with genuine concern, panto accent still going strong: “When did you last have the sex?”

Almost in spite of itself, the film is very moving at points. Edek and Ruth travel to Lodz, where the factory that Edek’s grandfather used to run has fallen into ruin. Amid the rubble of bricks are hints of former order and beauty. Ruth tries to open an old door, but the handle comes off; she puts it in her handbag for safekeeping. Later, father and daughter track down the apartment that Edek grew up in, before he and his family were ejected in 1940. There, they meet an impoverished Polish family who are less than delighted to have these possible usurpers on their doorstep. Initially, the family insist that the apartment was unfurnished when they moved in; then Edek realises he’s sitting on his parents’ old sofa; that a silver dish on a shelf belonged to his mother; that the teapot, too, was hers.

But while the film is tearjerking at times, those tears feel less earned than stolen. It’s hard not to cry along with Edek when he hugs his dead grandfather’s coat to his chest; but the moment isn’t wrenching because of Fry’s performance, or even Julia von Heinz’s direction. It’s wrenching because of the subject that the film is attempting to engage with: the brutality, and extraordinary scale, of the Holocaust. 

Some things are done well in Treasure. Post-Soviet Poland is skilfully evoked: everyone’s smoking all the time; the drizzly weather is all-pervasive. There are moments of real humour, as when our duo visit Auschwitz, and Edek notes dryly that the bleak postcards on sale wouldn’t make for particularly cheering mail.

But neither Fry nor Dunham manage to disappear into their roles; and the film never really springs to life, plodding from moment to moment with leaden feet. And it ends up exactly where you expect – with father and daughter tearfully atoning for their shortcomings, and ushering in a new era in which they are sure to communicate more honestly. In a way, the ending fits the film: it’s predictable and deeply unsubtle, but affecting all the same.

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