Home Video Hovel- In Search of Memory, by David Bax
In pretty much any case one can think of, a documentary must have a subject. That subject is generally either a topic or a person. In Petra Seeger’s In Search of Memory, it is both. Yet, like the best documentaries, it’s actually about something more, something deeper.
Neurobiologist Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his discoveries about how short-term and long-term memories are made and kept in our brains. Long before that, though, he was a Jewish boy living in Vienna as the Nazis came to power. His family left just in time to save themselves and relocated to Brooklyn, where Kandel’s extraordinary intellect along with a few fortuitous events led him to Harvard and, eventually, to that Nobel Prize.
Seeger’s methodology in constructing her film is not unlike Errol Morris’s when he made A Brief History of Time. In both cases, the films are just as much about the scientist’s work as the scientist himself and how the two things inform one another. The only strike against In Search of Memory is that Seeger employs dramatized flashbacks that are woven less than artfully into the movie.
Luckily, she has Kandel to fall back on always. In his late 70s at the time of filming, his unflappable, infectious exuberance more than buoys any clumsiness in the movie’s construction. Kandel travels through the world and through his own past like a man who is sure things will always work out for the best. In his company, you begin to believe that they will too. He warmly engages everyone he meets with the curiosity of a scientist but none of the cynicism or hardness you might rightfully expect from one who has seen some of the worst humanity has to offer.
Therein lies the true power of the In Search of Memory. Kandel may be able to describe how our minds form memories but Seeger is more intrigued by the mystery of how our memories form us. Time and time again, Kandel visits places where he was done great wrongs. His family was forced from their home. Their possessions were stolen from them – including the cherished toy car he’d received for his birthday only days before – with no recourse whatsoever. Yet he is never without a smile and a kind word. His heart is full of good will. He happily points out where in his hometown the Nazis who were the greatest offenders lived and worked. He meets the Austrian woman who now owns the storefront that was taken from his father and befriends her in a manner of minutes. In his lauded work, Eric Kandel has displayed the power of the human brain. In his life, he displays that of the human spirit.