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‘Europa, Europa’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 09, 1991


Agnieszka Holland
Marco Holschneider;
Delphine Forest
mature treatment of Holocaust issues

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The outcast must always be an actor. In the eyes of his persecutors, his true crime is that he is who he is. For Solly, the young Jewish hero of "Europa, Europa," Agnieszka Holland's darkly ironic masterpiece, his racial identity is his curse, his dangerous secret. Set between 1938 and 1945, the film tells the true story of Solomon Perel, the son of a Polish shopkeeper in Germany, and given what follows in this remarkable life, it begins at the most logical, primal point -- with his circumcision (an event he claims to remember). There is genius in having Solly first presented to us, as it were, without makeup, unmasked. This is both an actual and a metaphorical occasion, a branding, and it reverberates throughout the entire film, washing it with blood.

When the scene shifts, Solly (Marco Hofschneider) is 13 and soaking in the bathtub on the eve of his bar mitzvah. The Nazi persecution of the Jews is already well underway, and as Solly bathes, a brick flies through the window and soldiers swarm into his family's apartment. To escape, Solly jumps out the window, naked, and hides in a barrel. After several hours he gets up enough courage to ask a waitress friend to bring him some clothes; all she can find is a black leather coat with a Nazi insignia on the sleeve. Still, eager to return home to his family, he slips into it, his first disguise; the actor's career begins. With the Nazi threat intensifying, Solly's parents decide that he and his brother, Isaak (Rene Hofschneider), must flee Germany to their father's home in Poland, but along the way Solly and Isaak are separated and Solly is taken by Russian soldiers to an orphanage in Grodno. The daily routine at the orphanage is devoted mostly to Communist instruction, and partly out of a desire to conform, partly out of a crush he has on a pretty young teacher who's taken him under her wing, Solly adapts easily to the training, becoming an ideal student, a Komsomol, renouncing his Jewish identity as easily as he slipped into the Nazi overcoat.

Holland passes no judgment on Solly's actions here; she admires this open-faced boy's undaunted good spirits and adaptability, even, it seems, as he embraces atheism by reading a strident pro-Stalinist paper denouncing religion as the "opiate of the masses." Holland isn't a dour moral instructor; she's an ironist with a deft ability to capture the absurd aspects of her material and keep them in balance with the tragic. It's a sign of the Polish director's low-key humanism that she refuses to denounce Solly for seeking the approval of his instructor and with it the solid ground of normalcy by essentially joining the enemy.

Solly's object is survival, and survive he does, mostly through pluck and preposterous blind chance. He is both fate's victim and its beneficiary, and on a scale so epic that the dimensions of his character verge on the biblical. This is an extraordinary boy, wily yet accessible, bold yet never foolhardy. Before the beginning of his ordeal, he had dreamed of being an actor, "like Clark Gable," and perhaps it's this theatrical urge that makes him such a quick study and equips him with such an easy chameleon-like ability to adapt to his surroundings.

Yet while Holland gives the boy credit for his immense resourcefulness, she is keenly aware of the toll his shape-shifting compromises exacts. When the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin collapses, the orphanage is bombed, and Solly finds himself posing as a purebred German to a group of invading Nazi soldiers, who accept his story and quickly adopt him as their pet.

At this point, as Solly sheds the role of the Komsomol to wear the uniform of, first, a Nazi soldier, and then, after (accidentally) becoming a hero in battle, the elite Nazi Youth, the ironies -- and the danger of discovery -- intensify. The officers can't help but be won over by this dark-eyed charmer. One falls in love with him; another, the company's commanding officer, wants to adopt him. All around him there is talk of the Jews, of how they are the real enemy. The Fuehrer has a "solution" to the Jewish problem, Solly is told, and he naively accepts it when he hears that the Jews are to be gathered up and shipped off somewhere, "to Madagascar or Siberia," where they will no longer pose a threat to the German way of life.

The suspense that Holland builds into these encounters, where the slightest lapse in Solly's performance would result in certain death, is exquisite. Solly must be forever on his guard; even a casual pause to relieve himself in the woods becomes charged with danger, for no matter how deeply he immerses himself in his role, the evidence of his true identity is always lurking there to betray him.

Solly's ambivalence toward his own Jewishness is natural; we sympathize when, at one point, he buries his identification papers, then halfheartedly retrieves them and returns them to their hiding place in his underwear. How different his life would be if he weren't a Jew, if he didn't have to pretend, but could just "be." At times he seems so completely wrapped up in his performance -- when he is singing patriotic German anthems with his comrades in the Hitler Youth -- that, momentarily, he becomes the character he's playing, losing himself completely in his masquerade. His girlfriend, Leni (Julie Delpy), wants to have babies for the Fuehrer, but Solly doesn't dare sleep with her, though his desire is so intense that he attempts to disguise his circumcision by pulling down the remaining skin and tying it in place with string.

This last action is perhaps the ultimate gesture of Jewish assimilation, and doomed to failure. He can pass, but he cannot escape what he is. Even if his spirit will allow it, his body will not. He cannot be one of them, nor can he be himself; he can only wander lost between the two, an actor trapped -- and saved -- by his role.

There are a great many movies about the tragic experience of the Jews during the Second World War, but only a handful as passionate, as subtly intelligent, as universal as this one. In "Europa Europa," Agnieszka Holland tackles a great theme and, in the process, has made a great movie.

"Europa Europa," with subtitles, is rated R for mature treatment of Holocaust issues.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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