Berlinale 2024 review: 'Treasure' - a staggering misfire starring Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham

Treasure Copyright Berlinale
Copyright Berlinale
By Olivia Stroud
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How could such promising material go so wrong?


Where to begin with Treasure?

It stars Britain’s beloved Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham, who feature as Polish father (Edek) and his daughter (Ruth), born and raised in New York, travelling to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1991 to retrace the family’s tragic history as Jews. Sounds good on paper.

But what we actually get is an obnoxious Ruth shouting at Polish people “I don’t speak English” and bulldozing over their greetings with “me llamo Ruth” before embarking on a self-harming journey that screams of clichés. We can see Ruth means well when she tells two separate characters off for calling Auschwitz a ‘museum,’ yet it feels so completely tone deaf, since she doesn’t seem to grasp that perhaps these people, for whom English isn’t their native language, may not have the vocabulary to express what it is.

At one point she stick-pokes a tattoo of her father's Auschwitz prison number onto her thigh in between deep drags of cigarettes and a clear eating disorder. It feels unnecessary and simply a plot ploy to encourage viewers to empathise with such a deeply unlikable character. Lily Brett’s book "Too Many Men", upon which the film is based, has been celebrated by critics for bringing an “unapologetic main character” to our attention, but there are better ways (read, not insufferable) to do this.

While it is commendable that Fry took the time to learn Polish, it does beg the question why he was cast in the role of a Polish man – I mean were there no Polish seniors that could have played this role? Apparently, the film producer suggested casting Fry as the national treasure had undertaken his own journey to retrace his grandfather’s journey to Auschwitz from Slovakia, which does, however, give credit to the scene where he cries at the end, feeling very authentic.

It feels like the film doesn’t quite know where it’s going. We never find out what Ruth wants to get out of the trip (she’s a music journalist, but she doesn’t seem to have a clear vision, or assignment, for this trip). She also lumbers around Nazi literature, and becomes very attached to family china, she views as “stolen” by those who inhabit the flat Edek was forced to abandon by the Nazis.

And that’s before we even begin with the portrayal of the Polish people in Lodz, who are reduced to thieves and corrupt people who can be bought with any kind of bribes.

The film’s focus on the strained father-daughter relationship does little to salvage the film. Whilst the tension may work in a book, it doesn’t translate well on screen. It’s easy to see that the director is trying to make the dark and gloomy subject matter of the history of concentration camps more accessible, perhaps to a younger audience, but the story always seems to circle back round to Ruth. At one point, when Edek has just about fulfilled his character arc and learned to speak about the past, showing her photos of cousins who lost their lives in Auschwitz, she declares through tears “they look like me.” At this point, several audience members audibly sighed hearing this – clearly they too were getting tired of this character.

Treasure means well, but the editing feels lazy and the characters’ story arcs are predictable from the offset of the film. It just feels like a shame when the film could promise so much.

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