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A Well-Meaning But Maudlin Father-Daughter Drama

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After several years working in German TV and locally-oriented film projects, Julia von Heinz had a significant breakthrough with “And Tomorrow the Entire World” — a taut, punchy political thriller with a youthful spirit of anti-fascist revolt, vigorous enough to land a Venice competition slot. Its success evidently raised the status of the director’s long-held passion project, an adaptation of Australian novelist Lily Brett’s semi-autobiographical 2001 title “Too Many Men,” which reckoned thoughtfully with her parents’ experience as Auschwitz survivors, and the hereditary nature of trauma. It emerges here, in somewhat simplified form, as “Treasure,” a watchably meandering vehicle for Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry to wrestle out father-daughter conflicts both trivially universal and hauntingly specific to history. The urgency and dynamism that marked von Heinz’s last feature are largely absent; for a story of such particular and searing sorrow, it feels rather mild.

Premiering in an out-of-competition Berlinale slot, this story of a depressive American journalist and her rascally Polish father on a fractious trip to his former homeland may find a receptive arthouse audience when Bleecker Street releases it Stateside this summer, on the strength of its familiar stars and ever-resonant subject matter. But “Treasure” has to be considered unlucky to have arrived right on the heels of Jesse Eisenberg’s Searchlight-acquired Sundance hit “A Real Pain,” which tells an inevitably comparable story — Polish-American relatives bickering and bonding on a Holocaust tour of Poland — with markedly more wit and edge. Taking place in 1991, von Heinz’s film may be set 30 years prior to Eisenberg’s, but it’s the storytelling that feels fusty.

That milieu, in fact, may be “Treasure’s” greatest asset. With the help of highly resourceful production design by Katarzyna Sobańska and Marcel Sławinski (the ace Polish team behind Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” and “Cold War”), the film captures with a vivid, ragged specificity the sense of ruin and barely gleaming possibility of a country struggling to its feet after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Brutalist hotel lobbies greet international visitors with their best semblance of tobacco-stained Euro glamor, while rubble-strewn streets and collapsing apartment blocks can’t keep up the pretense. If Ruth Rothwax (Dunham), a lifelong New Yorker visiting the motherland for the first time, harbored any romantic notions of finding herself spiritually at home upon touching down in Warsaw, she is swiftly disabused of them.

Her father Edek (Fry) approaches his homecoming with rather less idealism, disguising his wariness with bluff nonchalance. The trip was Ruth’s idea, an attempt to find a renewed sense of personal identity in the wake of a recent divorce and the death of her mother. Edek, with whom she has a relationship largely rooted in mutual exasperation, wasn’t an essential part of the plan, but he has volunteered his services as a guide anyway. Upon arrival, however, he shows little interest in the historical sights and family-specific locations on her itinerary, instead steering her toward such bland, baggage-free attractions as the Chopin Museum, and rejecting her carefully booked train tickets for a comfy Mercedes chauffeured by genial factotum Stefan (Zbigniew Zamachowski).

Cue much squabbling, interspersed with what are clearly long-running digs from both sides: He mocks her diet and general uptight demeanor, while she’s mortified by his bawdy sexual candor and chaotic aversion to planning. There are shades here of the intimately troubled, oil-and-water father-daughter relationship that powered Maren Ade’s extraordinary “Toni Erdmann” — of which Dunham, as it happens, was once slated to write a since-aborted remake — but “Treasure’s” script, written by von Heinz with husband and regular collaborator John Quester, doesn’t examine it all that deeply. There’s a generality to the conflicts between Ruth and Edek that isn’t much colored by personal detail or peculiarity, while the film skips over the nuances of Ruth’s failed marriage, or her relationship with her now-absent mother.

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that Edek is protecting himself from discomfiting confrontations with his own past, but Ruth is oddly slow on the uptake, until his anguish is eventually unbottled when they visit Auschwitz — and the benignly narrated touristification of his own agonizing trauma becomes too much to bear. As they board a golf cart to tour the camp, Edek is informed that only survivors have this privilege, while other visitors must walk: “That’s something, at least,” he says drily, and the film could use more of this acidly loaded understatement.

Ruth, as a character, alternates frustratingly between writerly perceptiveness and more stereotyped neuroses. Dunham plays her with an admirable lack of easy sympathy, letting a gradually overwhelming sadness pool beneath her tetchy surface, but it’s hard not to miss her perverse precision as a writer here. Fry, meanwhile, offers contrastingly shaggy warmth, though the obvious put-on of his ripe Polish accent makes his casting more a distraction than a coup in a story so pointedly about heritage and personal truth. It’s the film’s Polish supporting players who bring welcome lived-in texture to proceedings: Zamachowski, years on from his leading role in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: White,” is a good-humored sidekick whose silent, flinty observation of the leads’ quarrels is clearly felt, while Iwona Bielska is wily and gently piercing as a one-night stand who puts Edek’s various strains of grief in subtle perspective.

Entirely excised from Brett’s novel, meanwhile, is its most daring device: the ghostly presence of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (recently portrayed to such chilling effect in “The Zone of Interest”), with whom Ruth has a series of challenging, uncanny conversations. One can see why this might have seemed a flourish best left to the page, though its surreal, unnerving collision of past and present, of base evil and everyday dysfunction, of a factual and spiritual understanding of history, gave the book a distinctive power. Those tensions are finally what elude “Treasure” — a film with heart but no real teeth, the commendable sensitivity of which turns too easily toward the sentimental.

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