Europa Europa

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The Chameleon

Nov 4, 2004 (Updated Nov 6, 2004)
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Pros:A script laced with irony; good performances; strong directing

Cons:Not the most emotionally engaging Holocaust story, but nevertheless a very intelligent script

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended film from one of the top international female directors, Agnieszka Holland


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

Here’s a film dealing with the Holocaust and World War II that manages to avoid being emotionally devastating without diminishing the horror of the events. It is also one of the best known films by Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland, who, since 1981, has worked in Germany, France, England, and Hollywood.

Historical Background: Agnieszka Holland is one of the so-called Polish New Wave filmmakers. She was born in Poland in 1948. Both of her parents were journalists but her mother was Catholic and her father Jewish. Her father died mysteriously while in police custody during an “investigation” when she was just thirteen. The official version was suicide but many believe he was murdered by being pushed from a window. Holland said during an interview, “When I was fifteen, I decided I want to make a movie. I decided painting was too lonely, and that I need power, you know, I need to tell people what they have to do.” Holland could not gain admission to film school in Poland during the anti-Semitism of the 1960’s in that country, so she attended the famous Prague Film Academy in Czechoslovakia. Her influences during that time were Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, and Wajda as well as everything avant-garde – the French New Wave, the English “Angry Wave”, and Italian Neorealism. It was a highly active and innovative period for filmmaking in Czechoslovakia and she got to watch the making of such films as Shop on Main Street (1965) and Closely Watched Trains (1967). She participated in demonstrations during the Spring of 1968 and consequently spent six weeks in prison.

Returning to Poland in the 1970’s, she worked with Polish director Andrzej Wajda. She began directing her own films in 1974, but it was not until her 1978 film Provisional Actors that she received international recognition, winning the FIPRESCI prize from Cannes. Two more strong films followed: Fever (1980) and A Woman Alone (1982). Just before the military coup in Poland in December 1981, Holland had moved her base of operations to Paris. When martial law was declared, she was prohibited from returning to Poland and was unable to see her nine-year-old daughter for eight months. Her first film made outside of Poland, Angry Harvest (1984), was made in Germany and nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. She then made her first English language film, To Kill a Priest (1988).

Next came the fine film under review here, Europa Europa (1991). It earned a slew of awards including a Golden Globe. Next came a French film, Oliver, Olivier, about a child who disappears from his family and comes back completely changed. It fared better with critics than the viewing public. In 1993, she directed A Secret Garden for Warner Brothers, based on the famous story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Total Eclipse (1995) was a French-English co-production with a cast that included Leonardo di Caprio. She then directed Washington Square (1997), which starred Jennifer Leigh and Albert Finney and was based on a novel by Henry James. Her more recent work includes The Third Miracle (1999), Shot in the Heart (2001), Julie Walking Home (2001), and Golden Dreams (2001). Holland has also done work as a screenwriter, including the script for the first film of the Three Colors trilogy, Bleu.

The Story: Europa Europa was based on the true story of Solomon “Solly” Perel (played in the film by Marco Hofschneider). Born a Jew in April 20th, 1925 (ironically sharing the birthday of Adolph Hitler) in Germany, Solly found himself in the midst of the traumatic years of World War II. His story has to be one of the most unusual stories to emerge in the aftermath of the War and the Holocaust. He was the fourth son of Azriel (Klaus Abramowsky) and Rebecca (Michèle Gleizer) Perel. His father was a shop owner of Polish ancestry, living in Germany in the 1930’s. The story begins with Solomon’s circumcision as an infant. His circumcision turns out to be a particularly significant event in Solomon’s life (he even claims that he can remember it) because, for better and for worse, it forever brands him with his ethnic identify.

The story now jumps ahead to 1938. Solly is not age thirteen and it is the day of his bar mitzvah. He studies his lessons while soaking in a tub. This night, however, also turns out to be the one forever after known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Shattered Glass,” when the persecution of Jews in Germany escalated another notch, with S.S. agents and German citizens smashing windows in Jewish homes and businesses. The Perel household is swarmed by Nazi agents. Solly jumps out a window, buck naked, and hides in a barrel for several hours. Badly in need of something to cover himself with, Solly asks a neighbor girl to get him some clothes, but the best she can come up with is a discarded Nazi uniform. Solly returns to his family’s home in his Nazi outfit to discover that his beloved sister Bertha (Marta Sandrowicz) was killed during the raid.

Solly’s parents decide that he and his brother Isaak (René Hofschneider) are to leave home and head east to Poland. Along the way, however, Solly and Isaak are separated when Solly manages to get on a boat crossing a river but Isaak does not. At that very moment, the partitioning of Poland following the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin is underway. Aryan Poles are fleeing westward in advance of the Bolshevik invasion while Jews are fleeing eastward to escape the Nazis. In the chaos, Solly and Isaak are unable to meet up again. Solly is now on his own.

Solly is picked up by Russian soldiers and taken to an orphanage in Grodno. There he excels as a student and becomes a favorite of the teacher. The instruction centers around Communist propaganda and Solly reveals an adaptability that will become his trademark and his lifeline. He learns to spout such Marxist lines as “Religion is the opium of the masses.” Partly driven by his desire to please the pretty teacher, Solly becomes a model “Komsomol” (Comrade). At age fifteen, Solly simply wants to fit in and survive. He also learns to speak Russian fluently, which will prove to be a great advantage.

When the German invasion of Russia begins in 1941, the entire orphanage has to pick up and flee to the east. When the kids are loaded onto a truck that the teacher commandeers, Solly doesn’t make it on board before the truck pulls away. All his teacher can do is toss him an apple. Despondent, Solly slumps by the side of a road and falls asleep until a squad of German soldiers come by with a jeep and motorcycles. At the critical point when the Germans are separating Jews from Russians, Solly convinces the Nazi soldiers that he is a German orphan who had been taken by the Russians. The Germans have captured an important prisoner (Stalin’s son) and, at the decisive moment for Solly, his ability to speak both German and Russian suddenly proves invaluable to the Germans. Very soon, Solly has metamorphed once again, this time into a translator for the German army unit. He takes the name “Josef” and quickly becomes a favorite, whom the Germans nickname “Jupp.” One gay soldier, Robert Kellerman (André Wilms), takes a particular shine to him and threatens Solly’s ruse when he discovers that Solly is circumcised. Fortunately, this particular soldier is more of a poet and actor than devoted Nazi and keeps Solly’s secret.

During an encounter with Russian soldier, all of the men in Solly’s squad, including Kellerman, are killed, other than Solly. He decides he will surrender to the Russians that evening but it turns out that a large German unit is right behind him, causing the Russians to surrender to Solly instead. He thus becomes an accidental “hero” and gains the attention of the local commanding officer. The officer decides that he and his wife would like to adopt Solly and arranges for his “son” to be sent to one of the best military schools for producing German officers.

At the military academy, Solly’s biggest problem is keeping his circumcision secret. If his pecker gets exposed, he’ll be exposed. This becomes a problem when the military physician pays his annual visit. Solly has to feign a toothache so as to evade the physical exam. The dentist will at least have no business in his pants. A second problem arises when Solly attracts the attention of a comely Aryan lass, Leni (Julie Delpy). No matter that she is crassly anti-Semitic; she’s lovely and at eighteen and nineteen, sex appeal is a mighty strong force of attraction. It gets to the point, however, that Leni wants to go all the way with Solly and he realizes that he’ll be done for if he agrees. He has to feign a moral compunction about having sex so young that he doesn’t really feel. She accuses him of being a “limp-dick” and drops him in preference for another who will accommodate her desire to produce a child for the Fuhrer.

At times during the story, Solly has nightmares – as well he might. These nightmares are rendered in magnificent surrealism. In one such scene, we see Hitler and Stalin hilariously dancing a waltz together. In another, he see Hitler hiding in a closet covering his (presumably circumcised) genitals with his hand because he is himself secretly a Jew. Then, the image fades into that of Solly’s dead soldier friend, Kellerman.

When the Allied invasion begins, the academy comes under attack, Solly picks an opportune moment to surrender, but the Allied soldiers aren’t buying his story that he’s really a Jew. He’s about to be executed when he’s recognized by his brother Isaak, who is decked out in a concentration camp uniform. Isaak urges Solly not to tell anyone his history of experiences because no one will believe it. After the war, Solly moves to Israel, settles down, and has a family. He was finally inspired by a reunion with one of the academy leaders to reveal his story. The real Solomon Perel has a brief cameo at the end of the film.

Themes: Europa Europa strikes me as a testament to survival through adaptability. It’s a theme that is a bit of a tough sell because we more often come across films that glorify individuals who martyr themselves for a cause or to maintain their self-identity. We tend not to respect people who renounce their loyalties and seemingly switch sides merely to save their own necks. One thinks of the biblical story of Judas and Jesus’s prediction that “one of you will deny me.” Nevertheless, I feel that Holland took the right tack with this story for a number of reasons. First off, Solly was just fifteen when the war began and even younger when he fled to Poland. Second, Solly was in no position to impact the terrible situation for his fellow Jews. There is no evidence that he ignored opportunities to make a difference. Third, nothing he did seems to have contributed to the negative actions of any of the groups with whom he had to associate himself. Holland appears to admire the pluck and chameleon-like adaptability of this young man and I do as well. Solly had a childhood ambition to be an actor and he got his opportunity in an unexpected way. He effectively played his parts – as Jew, as Komsomol, and as Nazi youth. In the end, Solly did his part for Jewish heritage, however unintentionally, by surviving and telling his story. The ironies inherent in his story do more to point out the absurdities inherent in claims of racial superiority, wherever and whenever they occur, than anything that Solly could have accomplished during the war by open defiance.

Another themes relates to indoctrination. By the time he was twenty, Solly had received a triple dose: first being educated at home in Jewish traditions, second into Bolshevik ideology at the orphanage, and third with Nazi propaganda at the academy. It’s hard to miss the parallels. Not only is one totalitarian dictator very much like another in tactics but all too many kids receive their first indoctrination from their own parents – but we call it “upbringing.” My personal opinion is that parents who truly love and respect their children teach them how to think critically for themselves, protect them from indoctrination with dogma before they’re mature enough to think independently, and then allow them to become their own persons when they’re developed enough to do so. The desire to indoctrinate one’s children into one’s own belief system is ultimately an act of pure selfishness.

Ultimately, though, the preeminent intent of this film is to drive home through irony the absurdity of oppression. Interestingly, after Europa Europa, Holland mostly turned away from the political themes that had occupied her to that point to more personal existential issues. She explains the change in heart as follows, “After doing Europa Europa, I realized one thing – that in some way, you know, it’s hopeless. You are telling this story of oppression, but you have the impression that people never will learn anything from that, anyway. Some years later, you have Yugoslavia, and some years later you have Rwanda. It’s like humanity is too stupid to learn any lessons. But now I am doing something more interior . . . and I’m speaking not to humanity but to you, and to you, and to you. Oh, God, that’s so refreshing.”

Production Values: Some reviewers find this film’s story compelling while others don’t. It comes down to whether you buy into Agnieszka Holland’s concept or not. She’s kept a certain emotional distance from the story. It’s not a tear-jerker nor does it convey a dominant moral message. Holland neither accuses Perel of being a “turncoat” or “Judas,” nor does she reduce either the Nazis or the Bolsheviks to hideous monsters. Perel has real ambivalence about the people with whom he associated at various stages of the story. Many of the boys at the military academy were friendly to him even though they were also anti-Semitic. The Russians fed and clothed him at the orphanage while at the same time indoctrinating him with Bolshevik rhetoric. Holland remains true to that ambivalence by humanizing most of the characters. The message from the ending of the story amounts to little more than a sigh of relief that the protagonist survived such a precarious ordeal. Despite all that, what Europa Europa does provide is perhaps the richest load of dark irony I’ve ever seen mined by a film. If you enjoy irony, you’ll love this film. It is a masterpiece of irony from beginning to end. I don’t say that it is also a masterpiece of a film overall, but it is a very good one.

One of the priceless bits of irony occurs while Solly is in biology class listening to the teacher lecture about Aryan racial superiority. The teacher asserts that any Jew can be identified by his features: pointy ears, shifty eyes, dark greasy hair, lots of hand gestures, and a sidling kind of gait. Solly gets called to the front of the room where the teacher measures his facial features and then declares that he’s not pure bred Aryan but he’s Aryan enough.

The settings and costumes were awesome and the cinematography very effective. Holland recreated the settings so well that I quite honestly forgot while watching this film that we weren’t all really there.

The casting for this film was superlative. I had no complaints about the performances in any of the secondary roles. There were many effective ones, including Julie Delpy as Leni, André Wilms as the gay soldier, and Halina Labronarska as Leni’s mother. The success of the film rested most especially, however, on the young shoulders of Marco Hofschneider. He was an inexperienced actor at the time and hasn’t apparently had credit in a top-quality film since. I found his performance in Europa Europa good overall, considering its difficulty. It was uneven, however, ranging from superb in some scenes to just adequate in some others.

Bottom-Line: Europa Europa is a passionate and intelligent film adding still another unique story to the library of Holocaust episodes. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s probably the strongest dose of irony you’ll ever encounter. Europa Europa was filmed in German and Russian. The MGM DVD offers an alternative French soundtrack and optional subtitles in English, French, or Spanish. The running time is 114 minutes.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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