"Angry Harvest," Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated World War II drama, achieves a depth of thought rarely seen in films -- it's not about saints or sinners, but about how saintly acts sometimes emerge from the mud of confused motives, from the random victories of our better selves. Artfully made and spectacularly well acted, "Angry Harvest" gives you life without black hats or white hats, but heroic just the same.
Leon Wolny (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Polish farmer, is rummaging around his traps in the woods when he comes upon Rosa (Elisabeth Trissenaar), starving, torn by branches and trembling with fever. A Jew, she has escaped from a freight train bound for the death camps. Although the Nazis would burn down the house of anyone caught harboring a Jewish fugitive, Leon hides Rosa in his basement, nursing her back to health.
But Leon is not exactly Francis of Assisi, or even Cary Grant. If he's capable of courage, he's also capable of cowardice (when he bails out on a Resistance plot, another dies in his place). A lumbering, boorish lout, tormented by sexual guilt (he once planned to be a priest), he knocks back vodka by the bottle and then throws Rosa across the kitchen table for his pleasure. And while he's protecting Rosa and other Jews, he's also profiting from their misery, buying their estates at bargain prices from the Germans.
Mueller-Stahl creates a marvelously nuanced portrait of Leon's misery, as difficult choices are forced on this weak man. A bearish presence with bleary eyes and a sour, broken mouth, always unshaven, a cigarette stub jammed in his mouth like a cribbage peg, Mueller-Stahl bellows and slobbers, bellows and slobbers, yet there's something oddly delicate about him. His eyes are wounds, and you know that he's not simply taking advantage of Rosa. He really does love her.
Trissenaar, a lovely German actress with a face like broken china, underplays nicely against Mueller-Stahl's boldly stated work -- in subtle ways, she reminds you of Rosa's social superiority, her higher intelligence. Holland and her cinematographer, Josef Ort-Snep, light the actress so that her face punches out of the frame, which is otherwise shadowy, almost cavelike.
Holland has a magnificent sense of pacing -- as the story gets more powerful, she lets the camera lie back more to give it room, and she uses a hand-held camera to give some of the scenes of domestic strife a documentary feel, a lifelike nastiness. More important, she has a complex mind, an openness to moral ambiguity and to the tragic vision of life. When Leon bends to kiss Rosa -- his fleshy lips pressing against her impassive cheek as shots ring out in the grove, killing another Jew -- you see in an instant not only the horrible irony of this sad pairing, but everything that is tortured and in love.
Angry Harvest, opening today at the K-B Paris, is unrated, and contains nudity in sexual situations, profanity and violence.