What Is a Jew? [EUROPA EUROPA]

From the Chicago Reader (November 8, 1991). — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Agnieszka Holland

With Marco Hofschneider, Rene Hofschneider, Delphine Forest, Andre Wilms, Julie Delpy, and Halina Labonarska.

Solomon Perel was born in Peine, Germany, in 1925, the youngest child of a Polish-Jewish shoe merchant. He survived World War II first in a Soviet orphanage (1938-41), then by posing as an Aryan at the most prestigious and elite Hitler youth school in Germany. The only giveaway sign of his Jewish identity was his circumcised penis, which he had to keep hidden at all costs. (At one point, he even made an amateurish and painful surgical attempt to “uncircumcise” himself.) After the war, he emigrated to Palestine as a Jew. At the end of Europa Europa — director Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s autobiography — the real Solomon Perel tells us, “When I had sons, I didn’t hesitate to circumcise them.” The film concludes by showing us Perel today, at age 65, in Israel, singing a familiar Hebrew song.

But are we truly convinced of his Jewishness? On the prosaic level we certainly are: obviously Solly Perel is a Jew. But on the philosophical, meditative level established during the course of this remarkable film, we may be somewhat less certain. Solly Perel is a Jew, but what is a Jew? And what, for that matter, is an Israeli– or a European? Reformulating the existential view of the Holocaust offered by Shoah more in terms of black comedy than of tragedy, Holland creates a mental climate in which identities seem as mutable and as deceptive as uniforms. (Agnieszka Holland herself is half-Jewish, if that tells us anything.) In stark contrast to the pretentiousness and outright stupidity of David Mamet’s Homicide — another recent movie about Jewish identity, and one that is being taken seriously as such by critics who apparently prefer to give Mamet, like Clarence Thomas, the benefit of every doubt — Europa Europa is grounded in history, experience, and observation, not in the dark metaphysical night of the writer-director’s soul; and that difference is plainly visible.

Let’s start again with the prosaic level of the inquiry. “You won’t believe it,” the actor who plays the young Solomon Perel begins his narration, “but I remember my circumcision.” When the war is over, and Solly is miraculously reunited with his brother Isaak, the only member of his family who is still alive, Isaak tells him, “Don’t tell your story to anyone. Nobody will believe you.” What other people believe proves to be the very essence of who Solly Perel is; it even proves to be the very essence of whether he is. Perel, who has the same birthday as Adolf Hitler, has lived as a Jew for roughly 60 of his 65 years, and there’s little doubt that if he hadn’t lived as a non-Jew for those missing five years he wouldn’t be alive today. But existentially speaking, is he really a Jew? If fate made him a Jew in the first place and history made him a non-Jew in the second place, how much does his own volition matter in the third place? Is he a good Jew today in the same sense that he was a good Stalinist in Russia and a good Hitler youth in Germany?

This is only one of the lines of questioning in Europa Europa, and while it’s more than enough to build a feature around, part of Agnieszka Holland’s uncommon strength as both a moralist and an ironist is that she uses it as only the central line of questioning in a whole constellation of other questions. The issues she raises concern not only her absurdist antihero, whom she has compared to both Voltaire’s Candide and Woody Allen’s Zelig, but also the people he encountered in Russia and Germany, and she broaches these issues freely and openly, without either drawing her own conclusions or instructing us about how to do so ourselves.

Holland asks her questions not in terms of a portentous, soul-searching talk fest but in terms of a hugely entertaining picaresque adventure, full of comedy, suspense, heartbreak, shock, and exuberance. The questions are built into the processes and trajectories of her own story telling, arising naturally from the story because they are so basic to how Perel stays alive. They are questions we feel in our bones, as he undoubtedly felt them in his. “When I first met Solomon Perel,” Holland has said, “I was struck by the traces of things he learned in those different systems. There are vestiges of his communist and Hitlerian educations. . . . It’s impossible to survive such an experience without leaving a part of you behind. His sole true identity was his sex.”

Holland’s question about the meaning of the word “European” itself is what all her other questions eventually lead to, and clearly what accounts for her double title. As she puts it in a statement accompanying Europa Europa‘s press materials, “There’s an ambiguity surrounding the word ‘Europe.’ Europe is something nostalgic representing values of culture and morality in modern civilization. But alongside this rich heritage there is also the Europe that nurtured this century’s greatest evil.”

A delicately nuanced sense of moral relativity is central to Holland’s last three features, which are the only ones I’ve seen. (She’s made half a dozen in all, and worked on the scripts of many other films, including seven Andrzej Wajda features and Yurek Bogayevicz’s Anna; she also appears as an actress in Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation, and reportedly she was the inspiration for the journalist heroine of Wajda’s Man of Marble.) That moral relativity is a quality she shares with Krzysztof Kieslowski, perhaps her only peer in the new Polish cinema. Like Kieslowski, she’s recently been set adrift by the collapse of state financing into the daunting polyglot world of European coproductions, which makes some of her questions about Europe even more pertinent. (One consequence of this new situation is that, according to a recent report in Variety, Europa Europa can’t qualify for an Academy Award nomination because, technically speaking, no single country can claim it; it spreads too wide a net, with French and German financing and Polish, Russian, and German dialogue, to have a nationality of its own.)

Without Holland’s delicacy — which is most immediately evident in her exquisite direction of actors — her movies would run the risk of being unbearably vulgar given their subject matter. Angry Harvest (made in 1985 and which was nominated for an Oscar), set in Poland during the German occupation, is about a middle-aged Catholic bachelor farmer who hides, shelters, nurses, and sexually exploits a married Jewish Austrian woman who has escaped from a train carrying her family to a death camp. Thematically it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Liliana Cavani’s moral and aesthetic atrocity The Night Porter (1974), a movie that eroticizes Nazi brutality, portraying it in terms of stylish sadomasochistic fun and games. But Holland’s sensitive and unhackneyed handling of the subject, imbuing it with ambiguities at every turn, places it light years away from Cavani’s tacky exploitation maneuvers and almost equally far from the bittersweet ironies of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (even though she uses many of the same actors Fassbinder did). Neither the farmer nor the woman is treated as a hero or a villain, and neither is allowed to function as a sex object for the viewer; both characters run through a plausible gamut of responses to their respective situations that reflect their respective backgrounds, and in the course of doing so create complex and highly resonant portraits that confound simple moral preconceptions.

To Kill a Priest (1987), while less successful, has every bit as much integrity in its refusal to opt for oversimplified moral certainties. Based on the real-life assassination of Solidarity chaplain Jerzy Popieluszko by the Polish secret police in 1984, it is handicapped by coproduction conditions of the very worst sort — Holland uses an Anglo-American cast and English dialogue in French locations to tell a Polish story. But her intense curiosity about the police captain who kills the priest — a curiosity that goes beyond position taking — makes this an ethical investigation of the first order. (To Kill a Priest received a brief run in Chicago but nowhere else in the U.S.; both it and Angry Harvest are available on video, as is Holland’s earlier Fever.)

Holland applies the same nonjudgmental stance to Solly Perel as well as to all of the Poles, Russians, and Germans he encounters over the course of Europa Europa. To varying degrees, all of these characters share a certain talent for making do with existing circumstances — which under Stalinism and Nazism entails making adaptations that may appear outlandish in hindsight. In this respect, Solly’s chameleonlike conformity is only an intensified version of everyone else’s; his impersonation of a Hitler youth, for instance, seems to differ from the impersonations carried out by many “real” Hitler youths living up to their projected ideal only in degree, not in substance. At one point, in a class on racial physiognomy, Solly is used by the teacher as a human exhibit of characteristic Aryan traits, and the teacher’s arguments are oddly persuasive. While we like to say that “seeing is believing,” this movie repeatedly demonstrates the contrary, that believing is seeing.

Admittedly, Solly does encounter a few stumbling blocks as a Jew in disguise. When he and his girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walk past a desecrated Jewish cemetery — a remarkable moment of exposition that Holland conveys in a single extended tracking shot — and she remarks, “If I ever catch a Jew, I’ll slit his throat. . . . Lice should be crushed,” he’s so shocked that he slaps her before he can think. But most of the time he’s able to hold these responses in check — in combat training at the Nazi school he’s only momentarily reluctant to ram his bayonet into a dummy with a gold star — and his overall adaptability calls to mind the explicit moral of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Mother Night, set in the same era: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This principle applies not only to Solly, but also to many of his Stalinist and Hitlerian classmates, and what makes much of this movie an absurdist black comedy is that Holland makes sure we know about the pretense. Insofar as movies are themselves elaborate impersonations, she has coaxed from her talented cast (Marco Hofschneider as Solly is especially good) a number of telling behavioral moments that both reveal and multiply her manifold ironies: both the characters and the actors playing them seem to be simply “doing their job,” except for odd moments when they betray their truer identities.

Solly’s capacity for self-preservation via impersonation is first revealed when he’s still living with his family in Germany; as he’s taking a bath on the eve of his bar mitzvah, an attack on his home causes him to flee buck naked out the bathroom window into an alley; when he returns later, to find his sister dead, he’s wearing a stolen leather jacket with a swastika.

Deceptive appearances remain a key motif in the film after that. For safety the family moves to Lodz, the father’s Polish birthplace, and in one of the early scenes there Solly inadvertently rides his bike right into a plate of glass being carried along the street; he also sees a lot of movies in Lodz, because his family lives above a cinema and the hunchbacked cashier (Nathalie Schmidt) has a crush on him and lets him in for free.

Once war breaks out and the German invasion is imminent, Solly’s father orders him and his brother Isaak to leave at once for safety and to travel as far east as possible. The two brothers become separated while crossing a river that divides Russian-controlled eastern Poland from German-controlled western Poland, and Solly winds up in a Russian orphanage in Grodno, where he spends two years as “a Soviet patriot and a good communist,” still communicating with his parents by mail, infatuated with one of his teachers (Delphine Forest), and quite content to share his fellow pupils’ contempt for all religions. (The only rebel in the orphanage in this respect is a Polish Catholic anti-Semite who later comes close to blowing Solly’s cover after Solly becomes a translator in the German army. The complex emotional resonance Holland gives to this foolish but courageous character is characteristic of her radical humanism throughout.)

Solly winds up in the German army after Germany attacks Russia in June 1941 and the orphanage is bombed. Solly’s beloved teacher requisitions a truck to escape in with her students; Solly is unable to board the truck on time, and in one of the film’s most poignant details, she helplessly throws him an apple. It’s after Solly is captured by the German army that he begins his impersonation of “Josef Peters,” helped along by his excellent German and the clear desire of the German soldiers to believe him. One of these soldiers, a middle-aged former actor (Andre Wilms), even develops a crush on Solly, surprises him in his bath and makes an unsuccessful pass at him, and becomes a sympathetic confidant when Solly eventually blurts out that he’s Jewish. (He subsequently confesses his secret to his girlfriend’s mother, leading to another very touching scene.) When Solly asks the actor-turned-soldier about his former career, “Isn’t it hard playing someone else?” the older man replies, “It’s easier than playing yourself.”

As Holland has explained in an interview, she has mainly stuck to the facts of Perel’s autobiography, though she does condense the temporal progression of a few events, change the names and backgrounds of a few characters, and alter some of the facts about Solly’s family for dramatic purposes. (His sister died somewhat later than she does in the film, and after the war Solly was reunited with a cousin rather than with his brother Isaak.) But she has clearly used the facts quite selectively and imaginatively, going so far as to imagine a couple of Solly’s nightmares with haunting effectiveness. At another point she shows Solly practicing a Nazi salute in a mirror and then suddenly converting this routine into an impromptu tap dance, and it’s emblematic of her masterful touch that she makes such a moment seem as revealing of Solly’s real identity — a behind-the-scenes look at an actor on vacation — as Solly slapping his girlfriend beside the Jewish cemetery.

It’s at moments of this sort that Holland most comes into her own as a director, but the overall sweep of Europa Europa as both spectacle and story telling is effortless throughout; she’s improved even since the tightly controlled chamber dynamics of Angry Harvest. Holland is the only woman director I can think of who has filmed war combat scenes, a task she handles with absolute confidence while bringing to the scenes a warmth and tenderness we wouldn’t find in war scenes by most male directors. Thanks to her earthiness and tact, she turns this remarkable true story into a potent parable of our times — “our times,” in this case, encompassing a period of more than half a century that we’re still learning how to digest and understand.

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