Jan 23, 2002 at 12:00 am

This video documentary by Amir Bar-Lev is an unusual addition to existing Holocaust-related material, sometimes comic, often devastating and wholly original. It introduces us to two Czech-Americans. One, 77-year-old Jan Wiener, escaped both Nazi-occupied Prague and an Italian POW camp before fighting with the Royal Air Force and ending up in a Czech Communist labor camp. The other, 72-year-old writer and filmmaker Arnost Lustig, survived a Nazi concentration camp and became a postwar Communist Party functionary before the inevitable disillusionment led to his immigration to America.

Despite the shared aspects of their past as persecuted Czech Jews, which has led to them developing a tenuous friendship as Czech-Americans, the two are like oil and water. Wiener the pilot-hero, incredibly handsome in his old photos and still a dashing Silver Fox type, is pragmatic and driven while the owlish Lustig, who in his old photos looks like, well, like a young intellectual, is whimsically analytical and rather determinedly cheery. And then there’s the niggling fact that Lustig was enjoying Communist Party favors at the exact time that Wiener was stewing as a political prisoner.

Bar-Lev follows this temperamental odd couple as they travel to Prague to retrace Wiener’s escape route into Italy, ostensibly as research for a book Lustig plans to write. As Wiener is moved to reminisce in a series of wonderfully told and increasingly harrowing anecdotes, Lustig begins to interject his own psychoanalytical interpretations of Wiener’s past and the already strained bond of friendship between the two begins to dissolve. The pugnaciously independent Wiener becomes increasingly upset by the good-natured but probing Lustig’s interferences with his memory and their friendship unravels like a tiny echo of the greater tragedies that shaped their lives.

Once they arrive in Italy, Wiener is unable to find anyone who remembers him in the small village where he was kindly treated, more than 50 years earlier, as a POW escapee. It doesn’t help that he goes about introducing himself as “Johnny from America” when he would be remembered, if at all, as “Jan from Prague.” He wanders around like the ghost of someone whom no one remembers having died. It’s an eerily sad sequence in a film that guarantees that Wiener will never be one of those who suffered and left no trace.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].