Directed by: Agnieszka Holland (Copying Beethoven)
Starring: Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, René Hofschneider, Piotr Kozlowski
Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa (1990) is probably the most circumcision-conscious film ever made. That’s not actually surprising since the film—based on Solomon Perel’s autobiographical account—is all about the Jewish Salomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider, Immortal Beloved) passing for Aryan in Nazi Germany—with his Jewishness always only a physical examination away. That may sound glib, but it isn’t, since it really is central to this fascinating story of survival under the Nazis.
As often seems to be the case with Agnieszka Holland’s films, there’s a critical tendency to find fault in the film that I have trouble finding myself. I think her tendency to kind of mix approaches—sticking playful, even slightly silly material right next to the deadly serious—makes it hard for some critics to figure out how “seriously” to take her. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that it’s necessary to determine how seriously to take a filmmaker. I’m not even sure what that means, though I’ve seen the idea crop up a number of times over the years. Regardless, I’ve liked most of Holland’s work that I’ve seen and Europa, Europa is no exception. Oh, maybe the fantasy business of Hitler and Stalin waltzing is a little clunky, but the dream sequence of Hitler hiding in a closet—because he’s supposedly a Jew—is beautifully realized and has an even more intriguing payoff.
The film is primarily concerned with Perel’s attempts to simply survive in a nightmarish situation and it’s very good at detailing this in a dramatically valid manner. Is it strictly “true?” Probably not. Did the parallel sequences of God not answering a prayer for candy to fall from heaven (but Stalin kind of does) in a Russian orphanage and an Allied (Russian?) bomb happening to fall on a building and disposing of a bureaucrat and records that would have been Perel’s undoing actually happen as depicted? I’m doubtful, but in context, this works—and raises all sorts of interesting questions that strict realism wouldn’t.
One very interesting aspect of the film is that the only sympathetic Germans Perel encounters are both older. The first is a gay soldier (Andre Wilms) with a crush on Perel, who discovers his secret and becomes his friend and protector—and has perhaps the most moving line in the film. The second is the mother (Halina Labonarska) of Perel’s violently anti-Semitic girlfriend (Julie Delpy), who guesses his secret—and to whom he outs himself as Jewish in an “I had to tell someone” moment. (Yes, this is a scene that’s probably about more than it appears on the surface.) The mother, in fact, bemoans the fact that she doesn’t know or understand what her daughter has become under the influence of the Nazis. Again, it’s the questions that are raised that are more interesting than the realism. See it for yourself.
Classic Cinema From Around the World will present Europa, Europa at 8 p.m. Friday, July 30, at Courtyard Gallery at their new location, Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., in Asheville’s River Arts District. Info: 273-3332.