Polish Film Recalls One Boy's Odd Story
NEW YORK — FILMS about the Holocaust inevitably reveal the evil that dwells in anti-Semitism. Certain films also make it their business to expose the absurdity of the Nazi ambition to build an empire on bias and bigotry - a profound absurdity that lends a note of grim but genuine humor to Holocaust-related classics as varied as "The Great Dictator" and "Seven Beauties.""Europa Europa," directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, is not in a league with those great pictures. Nor is it really a comedy, even a dark one. But its story is charged with the same recognition that Hitler's war against Jews was not only wrong, but also grotesque and ridiculous. Making "Europa Europa" still more effective is the fact that its story is basically true - taking its key events from the autobiography of Holocaust survivor Solomon Perel, who appears in person at the end of the film . The tale begins in 1938. Solly, in his early teens, lives in Germany with his parents, Polish-Jewish immigrants who own a modest business. After a Nazi attack that kills his sister, he and his family move back to Poland - which does them little good, since war breaks out and Germany promptly invades the country. Solly finds himself with other refugees on a river between eastern Poland, now controlled by the Soviet Army, and western Poland, under German occupation. Some of his companions flee toward the B olsheviks, while others decide the Nazis are a lesser threat. Solly ends up with the Soviets, who dispatch him to an orphanage where he's taught the communist creed. He then falls into German hands, but is quick-witted enough to save his life by claiming to be a "pure Aryan" without a hint of Jewish blood. From here on, Solly is caught in a full-time masquerade, forced to hide not only his religion and personal beliefs, but also the physical fact of his circumcision, which would give him away in a flash if discovered. Life and death hinge on the success of his pose, first as the "mascot" of a German Army unit and later as a member of the Hitler Youth, attending an elite school. He gradually learns the truth about the Holocaust going on outside, however, and finds it increasingly difficult to play his "Arya n" role. The plot of "Europa Europa" pivots so frequently on chance events and coincidences that it's sometimes hard to believe Ms. Holland has remained true to Mr. Perel's experiences without embellishing them. Yet as Tolstoy vividly demonstrated in "War and Peace," war by its very nature breeds chaos, confusion, and a climate of uncertainty in which the "impossible" may easily happen. Holland's brisk filmmaking captures Solly's dilemmas with impressive energy and even a sense of cinematic fun - which instantly gives way to recognition of real pain and anxiety, however, when this is necessary. Good performances, especially that of Marco Hofschneider as the young hero, also contribute to the movie's success. On the down side, Holland seems more concerned with narrating events than with exploring characters. Nonetheless, the movie proves - as did "The Nasty Girl" last year - that Holocaust themes can still be treated with wit, freshness, and originality in mainstream cinema. "Europa Europa" is rated * for "mature treatment of Holocaust themes."