A portrait of director Berliner’s distant cousin, friend and former mentor Edwin Honig, who is living with Alzheimer’s. Honig was a poet, translator, literary critic and university lecturer. Now he has lost almost all connection with his own past, his family and his personal identity. But sometimes his poetic soul flickers back to life again. A film essay on the function of memory and the importance of our ability to remember and forget.

No, this is not another film about Alzheimer’s. At the beginning of First Cousin Once Removed, Berliner defies any expectations of a traditional chronological narrative in which we follow the final months or years of an Alzheimer’s patient, witnessing the deterioration.

A fast sequence of Berliner walking down the corridor to the front door of first cousin Edwin Honig’s apartment, in varying outfits, depicting the many times he walked this walk, presents us with the language of the film: here is a construction and interpretation of this topic, pasting together shots taken over a range of occasions. Whether or not the many walks down the corridor were actually filmed over the years or in a day of changing shirts and shaving doesn’t matter.

First Cousin… is a highly fractured and playfully reassembled story, a mash-up of all the footage collected: interviews (Honig is unable to remember much from his past, so friends and former students, and family members provide the information Honig is now missing), observation, talks to and with Honig (which seem repetitive, but that makes sense given his situation), archive footage, letters, photos. This is interspersed with metaphoric images that illustrate Honig’s situation and with writings accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter and generally by a rich soundtrack. It is a style we know from Berliner’s previous films, such as Nobody’s Business (1996) and Wide Awake (2006). Aware of potential criticism for exploiting his cousin, Berliner hedges against it by including both opposition and support for what he is doing.

The film is reflexive as well: Berliner tries to converse with Honig on screen; he has Honig respond to photos and archive footage, and to the film in the making. After ‘discussing’ the poets Honig translated and his abilities with language and words, Honig brings the narrative forward: “Alright then, let us have the next story”. Near the end, Berliner asks Honig to imagine being in a film and millions of people watching: what would he say to them? “Remember how to forget” Honig answers. Although the film is a cascade of images and sounds, everything interrelated. Through the fractured narrative, Berliner seems to recreate the associative ways human beings can connect memories, places, names, and experiences. Through this narrative, several themes emerge in First Cousin: identity (of Honig as well as Berliner), memory, trauma, poetry, music, family, and death.

The question of who the returning visitor is and his relation to Honig serves as a stepping stone to Honig’s past. With the help of various sources, Honig’s identity is created: his ancestry, his parents, his deceased brother Stanley, the source of a life-long trauma. That trauma resides in Stanley’s death, as he was knocked down by a truck while running after Honig, his big brother, when they were three and five respectively. It seems what happened to Stanley is one of the last things Honig forgot. Honig’s father never stopped blaming him and subsequently, Stanley became a recurrent theme in Honig’s own work, an ever-present child. Also subsequently, Honig did not know how to love except in a way similar to how he was loved: by picking.

Edwin Honig, subject of Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed. Courtesy of Alan Berliner

 Honig’s father was a cantor and his mother a piano player. It’s no surprise he is a musical man. This resonates with his qualities as a poet and translator. Honig translated poetry from Portuguese and Spanish language authors, such as Cervantes, Garcia Lorca, Hernandéz, Calderón de la Barca, and Pessoa, and was knighted by the President of Portugal and the King of Spain. But he doesn’t remember, nor does he recognize the regalia when shown to him.

His first marriage is presented as a happy one. His first wife, Charlotte, introduced through a picture – “Who is she, I don’t remember her. … I guess she was my wife?” – with whom Honig did not have children, suffered from cancer. Honig took a sabbatical to dedicate his time to taking care of her until she passed away. His second marriage was more problematic. The trauma named Stanley not only inspired him to write To Restore a Dead Child – it also killed his own fatherhood. With his second wife Margot he adopted two sons, Daniel and Jeremy. They’re not around. “Do I have children?” Honig can’t relate to them – “Who is this little boy? Stanley?” he asks about a family picture. Berliner corrects him. Honig then seems to mix up feeling ‘love’ and ‘mad’. Through a montage of Honig and his own voice-over, Berliner cleverly constructs a man struggling to deal with love, to remember it, and suggesting the pictures be thrown away.

Left, Edwin Honig with the filmmaker’s son, Eli Berliner, his first cousin twice removed.
He gave his sons a tough time: “Never had anything nice to say” according to Daniel, except to Berliner himself. It turns out that the admiration and respect Berliner expresses towards Honig was reciprocated; whether it was poetry, music, or the arts and public success and recognition in general that provided this, remains unnamed.

Although Honig can’t answer Beliner’s questions, that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say. The seemingly innocent utterances have a remarkable beauty and truth about them. His answers to Berliner’s questions remain witty, ad rem, poetic throughout. And he answers in rhyme and in poetry, a symbiosis of language and music. “Mirror mirror on the wall… You’ll be camera and I’ll be all”.

Asked for advice because, according to Berliner, forgetting runs in the family, Honig answers: “Prepare yourself. It’s worse than what you think”. The film ends with Honig’s death. By then he is unable to speak, but he continues to make sounds, often rhythmic, as if studying them. By then, we’ve seen good sides and bad sides of Honig, but both within a framework of admiration and sympathy, which comes from the core of who he was: a poet and musician.