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‘Europa, Europa’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1991


Agnieszka Holland
Marco Holschneider;
Delphine Forest
Under 17 restricted

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"Europa, Europa" has an enthralling premise -- if you can call a true story a premise. It's based on the real-life account of Solomon "Solly" Perel, a Jew who survived World War II by posing as a Nazi. But that emotionally compelling element remains inert in director Agnieszka Holland's hands. "Europa" is as competently done as it is subdued.

Holland's purpose is to keep an emotional distance from the story. There are many episodes to cover, so she deals with them expediently. But this just distances us from the story. Holland's longsighted goal -- to show Solly's full wartime experiences -- renders the film fractious.

Also, she offers little to replace the emotion she so efficiently avoids. This film is merely about a boy (played by Marco Hofschneider) who survives by forsaking his Jewish roots and joining the very oppressors that have torn his family apart. But "Europa" lacks conclusions or the macro-tragic implications of its title. At the end of it all, when Solly is faced with success (i.e., he's made it through the war alive), his learning experience amounts to a "Phew! I made it," and he resolves proudly to circumcise his children.

In "Europa," circumcision is a significant motif. It's Solly's biggest problem -- and one of the few suspense devices Holland employs with any success. At any moment, Solly can be literally exposed as a Jew. This danger presents itself during intimate encounters, from showering to sexual contact. Solly has to avoid the attentions of a homosexual Nazi (Andre Wilms). He also finds himself with a beautiful but virulently antisemitic girlfriend (Julie Delpy), who's dying to conceive an Aryan child for the Fuehrer.

Worried about Hitler's prewar pronouncements, Solly's Jewish family leaves its German hometown of Peine for Poland. When the Nazi war machine advances, however, Solly's father (Klaus Abramowsky) sends Solly and his brother Isaak (Rene Hofschneider) east. The siblings are soon separated. Solly finds himself alone and living by luck and wits. He undergoes a series of adventures, as dangerous and serendipitous as the events in Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird." After a stint at a Russian orphanage-cum-ideological camp in eastern Poland, he gets captured by a German unit. With his fluent German, the boy passes himself off as an Aryan. The troops adopt him as a translator (he also speaks Russian) and human mascot.

Strange providence intervenes again. He survives a battle and is mistakenly celebrated as a hero. The ultimate irony occurs when Solly (who shares the same birthday as Hitler) is sent in triumph to the Hitler Youth school.

Holland makes Solly's emotional travails just so many pesky feelings. He feels guilt at hiding his Jewish roots. He cannot consolidate in his mind the gentle ways in which the Germans treat him with the cruel hatred they bear for Jews and Slavs. He has (rather hamfisted) guilt dreams involving his family, Stalin and Hitler. But these feelings don't gel into a satisfying, dramatic transformation. They just punctuate the drama. The problem is, "Europa" is episodic rather than cumulative. "Europa" is about the highlights in Solly's wartime life. But it's not about Solly.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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