Elijah Wood

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Everything Is Illuminated




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Everything Is Illuminated (2005)


Edward C. Patterson, site owner
Annie Graham, copy editor


Everything Is Illuminated begins with a close up of an amber encasement that plays an important role both in the plot line and the film’s overall symbolism. A voice over from Alex expresses his opinions on Jews, that they have shit between their ears. And thus we are hurdled into this provocative exploration of a now and then world through the eyes and minds of three quirky characters—Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood), Alex (Eugene Hutz) and Alex’s Grandfather (Boris Leskin).

Like partitions grouping the stages of our journey, a hand writes "Chapter I" and we see Jonathan standing before his Grandfather’s grave. Jonathan is a stark appearing young man, dressed entirely in black, with black tie and neatly parted hair, and thick, black, heavy glasses that magnify his eyes. Next he stands beside his grandmother, who is on her deathbed. She hands him a photograph and a Star of David necklace. "Your grandfather wanted you to have this for the collection." Jonathan stares at the photo (we see that it’s a picture of his grandfather and a young woman standing in a field), and he asks—"Who is Augustina?" after reading some writing on the back. Grandmother doesn’t answer. He comes to her side and sees her teeth in a glass. There’s a flashback and we see Jonathan as a child (comically in the same glasses with the same hair parting) staring at the same nightstand, only by his grandfather’s deathbed. On it is a stone—a piece of amber enclosing a cricket. He takes it just before his mother carries him away. Jonathan puts the amber piece in a Ziploc bag. We are now before the door; the grown Jonathan enters and stands before a wall of Ziploc bags, each containing a memory from his family and his life. It’s vast and we see a montage of objects from photos, to jewelry, to ticket stubs, to used condoms. He bags his grandmother’s false teeth and examines the photograph. We see that Augustina is wearing the amber piece as a necklace.

Chapter Two (the hand writes) and Alex starts a most comedic voice over as he introduces himself and his family in mostly broken and misplaced English. At the dinner table we learn that Alex’s father runs a tour service (in Odessa) for Jews in search of their Ukrainian heritage. Although Alex’s family is not Jewish, the enterprise was founded by his grandfather (who sits at the table, who claims to be blind and has a demented seeing eye dog (bitch), named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.). Alex is cool and premium with the ladies (as he says). We see him dancing at a discoteque. He walks with a swagger, but that doesn’t prevent him from being told that a certain Jew, named Jonathan Safran Foer is coming for a Heritage Tour and he, Alex will be the Translator. His grandfather (who is openly anti-Semitic) is told he will drive the tour as this American Jew is looking for some lost village near Lutsk. Grandfather refuses to drive unless he can have his seeing eye bitch along. They agree and Alex designs an "officious" uniform for Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., the seeing eye bitch.

Jonathan is on the train and is met by Alex, who calls him Jonfer. Alex hires (on the fly) a band to play the Star Spangled Banner for his arriving guest. Jonathan, who is very introverted, is startled by this, and that his translator hardly speaks English and that his tour driver claims to be blind. He also balks at Sammy Davis Jr. Jr, as Jonathan is morbidly afraid of dogs. But this aside, the tour gets underway to Lutsk. When they pass a billboard of a cricket, Jonathan takes out a book and writes. Alex questions this and finds out this is a catalog. Jonathan collects things—family things (actually in the train he even bags the handsoap). "Why do you do these things?" Alex asks. "Why does anyone do anything?" Jonathan says. "It’s something to do." He also explains that the real Sammy Davis Jr. was a Jewish African American, something that Grandfather says, "Is not possible."

Chapter Three (the hand writes), as we proceed through a wasteland toward Lutsk, Grandfather is most cantankerous, cursing in Russian at the drop of a hat. At the hotel, they eat, a scene captured precisely from the Foer novel. Jonathan is a vegetarian, and after being questioned at length by both Alex and Grandfather, he orders a potato, which comes with solemnity to the table. Jonathan accidentally knocks the potato on the floor. After a moment of chilling silence, Grandfather retrieves it, cuts it in four parts, gives one quarter to each of them (one to Sammy Davis Jr. Jr) and says, "Welcome to the Ukraine." Jonathan, stares at his quarter, retrieves a Ziploc bag and seals it up. They all laugh. They look at the photo. "That’s you," Alex says to Jonathan. "Some say." (And of course the photo is an antique rendering with Elijah Wood). He explains that the woman saved his grandfather’s life from the Nazis. He also touches on how the Ukrainians were just as anti-Semitic as the Nazis, or so said his grandmother. However, when Alex’s Grandfather sees the photo and hears the name of the stetl they are searching for—Trachimbrod, he demurs. Jonathan wakes up the next morning with the dog sleeping beside him. We also get a feeling than Grandfather knows something—has a secret.

The road trip passes ruined Soviets, skateboarders, and a carnival (where they ask directions to Trachimbrod, to little avail). Jonathan is very quiet, but Alex is not. He asks about accountants, if there are negro accountants and homosexual accountants in America. Jonathan says, "There are homosexual garbageman." Alex asks: "Are you carnal very often," and explains that Ukrainians all have "premium penises." "Even the women?" Jonathan asks in a feeble attempt at making a joke. A goatherd blocks their way and asks for gum. When Alex gets short with him, he deflates their tire with a pebble. While Alex and Grandfather chase after the goatherd, Jonathan removes the pebble and—what else—bags it.

The comic vein of the film takes a turn when the tour gets lost and Grandfather stops by a construction site for directions. Alex asks about Trachimbrod, but the men haven’t a clue. But when Jonathan speaks up, they deride him and also deride Alex as a city boy. Alex takes it out on Sammy Davis Jr. Jr and Grandfather explodes, beating the crap out of Alex. With distant thunder in the air, the film has reached its turning point. The men now ride in silence until Grandfather, lost and nearly out of gas, stops and walks to the edge of a field. The field is littered with wartime weapons. We see a flashback to Nazis executing Jews.

Now, out of gas, they camp for the evening. Alex tells Jonathan that he thinks Grandfather is distressed. Jonathan stares at the photograph, which comes briefly to life. It is his grandfather, Safran. He sees his grandfather across a misty river—the river of time. Jonathan wakes and Alexis Grandfather (with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.) are standing over him. He found some gas and they continue to drive. We also discover as they move through this part of the Ukraine that Grandfather, much to Alex’s surprise, has been here before. Alex becomes more troubled as time passes.


Grandfather pulls up to a field and asks Alex to make inquiries to a woman who sits on the porch of an old house set in a gorgeous field of Sunflowers. He asks her for Trachimbrod. She is troubled and looks at the photo. "I have been waiting for so long," she says. "Where is Trachimbrod," Alex asks. "You are here," she says.

Inside the house, the three men encounter a wall of boxes, which this woman has collected, with the remnants of Trachimbrod. She stares at Jonathan, removes his glasses and says, "Safran." Jonathan almost gets emotional and, thinking this old woman is Augustina, he gives her money from his family. But she is not Augustina. She is Lista, Augustina’s older sister. She shows Jonathan, in a box labeled "in case," her sister’s wedding ring, which had been buried on the banks of the river Brod. She shows a picture of Safran with Augustina and herself. She shows them a picture of a scholar named Baruch who used to come to town for books. Grandfather orders Alex and Jonathan out of the house so he can speak to Lista alone.

Outside, Alex comes to the realization that his Grandfather was an Ukrainian Nazi sympathizer who had persecuted Jews during the war. Jonathan goes into the sunflower field and captures and bags a cricket. "Why do you do this?" "Sometimes I’m afraid I will forget." Lista agrees to take them to Trachimbrod. She’s afraid to ride in the car, so they follow her as she walks in front, slowly as night falls. They reach Trachimbrod. It is gone—nothing more than a rock ring and memorial by the river Brod. 1,012 killed by the Nazis. Lista tells the story of how her sister died. Their father refused to spit on the torah, so they killed her. She was pregnant and they shot her in the abdomen.

Jonathan walks to the river (the river he dreamt that night by the campfire). He bags two fistfuls of river soil. He presents one to Alex’s Grandfather, who drifts in memory. A flashback shows the Nazis lining up Jews for execution. One of them is Baruch—Alexis’ Grandfather. In the distance, a young woman stands with a basket. The soldiers shoot. The corpses are covered with sulfur and lye. The young woman comes to the pile and "collects" things—glasses, letters. Suddenly, one corpse moves. It is Baruch. He sees her, stands, and discards his coat with the Star of David symbol and runs. The woman watches him. She is Lista.

Back at the house, Jonathan returns the amber necklace to Lista. "I believe this was your sister’s." She in turn brings out the box labeled "in case" and gives Jonathan the wedding ring. Augustina was Safran’s wife. He left one week before the Nazis came, to prepare for her and the baby in America. That is how Augustina saved Jonathan’s Grandfather’s life. "Why is this marked in case?" "In case someone comes searching." Before they leave, Lista asks Grandfather, "Is the war over?" He smiles: "Yes, it is over."

They ride away in the dark. We are back at the hotel in Lutsk, where Grandfather commits suicide in the bathtub. Alex finds him quietly. Alex and Jonathan ride back to the Odessa train station in silence. At the station, Jonathan gives Alex his heritage—his own grandfather’s Star of David necklace, which Alex promply wears. Jonathan walks away. Alex calls: "John," the first time Alex has gotten his name correct. Jonathan turns, smiles and proceeds to the train.

As Jonathan flies home, Alex voices over: "Everything is illuminated in the light of the past." Alex is the writer, the hand that writes each Chapter heading. At the airport, Jonathan notices, for the first time, all the other people he’s never noticed before. They notice him. He is a walking lamp and is exhilarated. He closes his eyes in true illumination.

At his grandfather’s gravesite, Jonathan stands with the soil from Trachimbrod and sprinkles it over the grave. Beside the Trachimbrod memorial, Alex and his family stand before the grave of his Grandfather—a proper Jewish monument. Alex wears a yamica and sprinkles the remaining soil from the Brod from the Ziploc bag over Grandfather’s grave as Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. peers over the side. "Everything is illuminated in the light of the past."