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Review: David Strathairn gives a masterful solo performance as Jan Karski in ‘Remember This’

A black-and-white photo of a gray-haired man partly in shadow
David Strathairn in “Remember This.”
(Jeff Hutchens / Sobremesa Media)
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Among those penetrating eyewitness accounts presented in “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s landmark, nine-hour 1985 documentary recounting the Holocaust through testimonies of those who lived through it, was that of reluctant participant Jan Karski.

Neither Jewish nor German, survivor nor perpetrator, Karski was a Polish diplomat turned resistance fighter who would serve as “tape recorder, camera and messenger,” reporting the horrors of the Holocaust to the outside world, where his findings would often be met with deaf ears and blind eyes.

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His remarkable, all-too-relevant story is hauntingly brought to life in Jeff Hutchens’ and Derek Goldman’s “Remember This,” conveyed in the unique form of a filmed stage piece starring David Strathairn in a tour-de-force solo performance.

Theatrical in all the right ways, the production is photographed in black-and-white on a bare set shared only with a spartan wooden table and a pair of chairs, providing the familiar character actor with an expansive canvas on which to recount Karski’s fateful experience.

“Human beings have infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient,” asserts Strathairn’s Karski directly into the camera, an observation that also applied to his unwillingness to relive his own suppressed past, until an insistent Lanzmann tracked him down and convinced him to share details he had never even told his wife.

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Exhibiting impressive physical dexterity, Strathairn proceeds to take the viewer on a chilling journey through hard labor at POW camps (where Karski has been interned by the Red Army), transporting dispatches for the Polish underground and torture at the hands of the Gestapo.

But it’s only after he’s given a first-hand tour of the Warsaw Ghetto and observes a transit camp that he learns a different disturbing truth upon delivering his alarming reports to Western allies, including a cigarette-smoking President Roosevelt, who seems more concerned about Nazis commandeering farmers’ horses than the extermination of Poland’s Jews.

Commissioned for Karski’s centennial (he died in 2000), the original stage production, “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski,” written by educators Goldman and Clark Young, was first performed by Strathairn at Georgetown University where, for decades, the dapper immigrant taught courses in international relations and Polish history.

The filmed version, meanwhile, recorded for PBS’ “Great Performances,” is a study in elegant and eloquent minimalism, drawing the viewer in with simple sound fragments — church bells, chirping birds, marching soldiers, train whistles — and stark, monochromatic lighting cues reflecting the moral ambiguities that surrounded Karski’s journey.

While Strathairn masterfully inhabits this self-described “insignificant little man,” as well as the dozens of characters he interacts with along the way, he also conveys the prevailing frustration and helplessness of an individual who was ultimately unable to convince the world of impending annihilation while there was still time to prevent it.

“It haunts me right now,” laments Karski. “And I want it to be so.”

Despite his perceived failings, Karski and “Remember This” serve as a crucial reminder of society’s duty to bear witness, especially whenever and wherever it would seem impossible to raise one’s voice above the din of indifference.

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‘Remember This’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica

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