A docu-dramatic riff on neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s memoir of the same name, In Search of Memory is a deservedly celebratory, if gratingly desultory, examination of the biological mechanisms that enable learning and how readily synaptic activity can yield trenchant metaphors for the human condition. Director Petra Seeger doesn’t do much more than follow Kandel around as he plays the giddy, elderly science rock star at lectures and international labs and reminisces gravely about his young life in Nazi-occupied Austria, and the convoluted significance of his cranial research is occasionally dumbed down to the visceral but ambiguous curiosity of watching dendrites spontaneously sprout on a monitor. But the Nobel Laureate narrates us through his eventful life, and his autumnal efforts to reconnect with the jagged fragments of his painful childhood, with enough Jewish wisecracks and thickly Yiddish diphthongs to redeem even the unnecessarily picturesque sepia of the dramatized flashbacks.
But while Seeger admirably translates Kandel’s eloquence to the screen (his wacky metaphorical zeal, linking microscopic somatic gestures to practical domestic tendencies, has some of the erudite yet down-to-earth aplomb of Stephen Jay Gould), she elides much of his book’s smoldering social implications, leaving only the bubbly, bow-tie-donning genius Jew for us to revere. As Kandel (but not always the film) makes clear, there’s a profound relationship between his interest in the hippocampus and his frustration with Austria’s participation in the Shoah: He implores rhetorically at one crucial juncture how the same culture could have possibly produced Freud, Klimt, and Hitler. But rather than adopting Kandel’s desire to hold the flaws of a “progressive” nation accountable, or even exploring Kandel’s breathtakingly creative correlations between the incisiveness of psychotherapy, the elusiveness of memory, and the egregiousness of communally “forgetting” the Holocaust, Seeger structures her all-too-safe denouement around an incomprehensible research breakthrough and a misty-eyed consideration of Jewish eschatology.
There’s no doubt that Kandel is a scholar. But there’s also no doubt that a more impressionistic, albeit uninformed, film like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind nails us between the ears with truer aim than this ultimately benign portrait.