Stranger Than Fiction
More outstanding than the current run of Holocaust fictions on the heels of several years’ documentary treatments, Europa Europa came out in 1991, scripted by its director from Solomon Perel’s Memoires. Agnieszka Holland writes or collaborates on all her screenplays and also those of others like Andrzej Wajda. Her own liberal-humanistic artistic-political career legendary, she is the honoree of a month-long Museum of Modern Art retrospective which includes respective U.S. HBO and Polish television series The Wire and Ekipa/Prime Minister and Ed Harris introducing three of the features in which he starred.
Prior to this screening, Holland spoke of the soul-searching genesis of Perel’s autobiography, years after the events. Become an Israeli businessman and father, and uneasy at having survived by living as a Nazi, he had a heart attack that he interpreted as a warning to get the story out. Perhaps, too, his hesitance came from film brother Isaak’s (René Hofschneider) admonition, “Don’t tell the story to anyone, they’ll never believe you."
“Happy to have the opportunity in this place [MoMA], the most artistic I’ve ever set foot in,” Holland touched on the reception of this her breakthrough film in the English-speaking world after also Jewish-Polish-themed Angry Harvest (1985), and of its concern with “identity, freedom and oppression.” It had been coproduced by Artur Brauner, a wonderful but exceedingly tightfisted man, and, while anxious about reaction in the Jewish community, she saw as the target audience “intellectuals and young people, Jewish and universal.” A favorite with reviewers and art-house audiences, the film won BAFTA, Golden Globe, National Board of Review as well as New York, Boston and Kansas City critics’ Best Foreign Film honors and the Political Film Society Human Rights Award. The adapted screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, but, widely touted as a shoo-in, the film never came near a statuette, because Germany declined to enter this coproduction with France.
Much has been written about thematic and technical echoes of the work of Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, among others, but in fact the surreal horror onscreen is brief and inserted/explained as nightmares -- a dancing feuding Joseph Stalin and a Jewish Hitler (Ryszard Pietruski) -- or else real glimpses through the painted-over windows of trolley 12 crossing the off-limits Ghetto. The total of misapprehensions and the hero’s resultant new incarnations are impressions from straight autobiography, not individually impossible, and furthered by his evasions, silences, lies and naïveté.
“At the same time, the whole thing, I wanted it to be as light as possible,” Holland remarked, and humor in the adolescent’s discomfiture counterpoints the brutal horror which surrounds the life. In particular, comic moments arise from late-teen sexual awakening, as he tries to keep hidden the circumcision with which the film opens. To the ritual ceremony’s rabbi-moyl’s question, and to mother Rebecca (Michèle Gleizer) and three older siblings’ approval, yarmulked shoemaker father Aziel (Klaus Abramowsky) names the baby Solomon.
Fast forward from that 1925 -- April 20, also Hitler’s birthday -- as National Socialism forces the bourgeois family from “Peine, Germany, Europe” on the eve of Solly’s (Marco Hofschneider) bar mitzvah, into virulently anti-Semitic Poland. Events catch up with them there, too, and, the Polish army crumbling and Jewish soldiers not even issued rifles, a naked Solly escapes once in a Nazi leather coat but must finally flee altogether with Isaak, from whom he gets separated and is saved from drowning by a Russian soldier and sent to an indoctrinating Communist orphanage-school.
His smooth-faced awkward innocence irresistible to the ladies, he is not yet fully aware of the danger from his circumcised state. Hunchbacked cinema cashier Basia (Nathalie Schmidt) gets no further than bonbons and giggles in the dark Lodz moviehouse, and bombs cut short any possibilities for a Stalinist teacher and baiter of Catholic Polish nationalist children. To ragtag conquering troops, he becomes German Josef “Jupp” Peters, a mascot in uniform, invaluable translator, and unwitting combat hero. Isolated by his telltale mark of religion, the boy can have no confidant -- thus the occasional voiceover, plus a philosophical actor-soldier who would love him and does find out, and, later, Jupp’s teary confession to his girl’s suspecting mother (Halina Labonarska), who comes near to appearing a lover.
Adopted by childless Captain Von Lerenau (Hanns Zischler), he is seduced in the safe darkness of the train -- the randy matron thrilled to get a brunet “like the Führer” -- carrying him to enrollment in a Hitler Youth academy. Capping a hilarious-scary demonstration of unmistakable Hebrew traits, Herr Professor Goethke (Erich Schwarz) measures the young man’s cranium as an “East-Baltic race authentic Aryan,” while unattainable milkmaidenly Jew-hater Leni (Julie Delpy) does her best to lose her maidenhead to the newcomer.
Voiceovers in the young man’s absolute isolation indicate a less than convincing questioning of his identity after so many dissemblings. There is humor, and yet acute pain, in his subterfuges. To preserve himself, he assumes whatever guise blows along in the winds of war. But as Ovid recorded precisely two millennia ago, “the form is only changed, the wax is still the same.” At yet another moment of truth, coincidence intervenes, and release comes in tears, thence to striped pajamas and the road to America or Israel.
(Released by Orion Classics; not rated by MPAA.)