Review: Europa, Europa (1991)

Running time: 1h 47 min

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Countries: France, Germany, Poland

Genre: Drama, War, History

Rated R

The 27th Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival presents the recently restored version (2016) of Europa, Europa. I missed the big screen experience this year, but the stunning color and clarity impressed me from beginning to end. An adaptation of Solomon Perel’s autobiography, Europa, Europa tells the story of a Jewish boy trying to survive and at the same time trying to figure out his national, religious, and social identities during the Holocaust period. It was shot in 1989, another historically important period: the Berlin Wall fell in the same year and several communist countries in eastern Europe (Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia…) began to abandon the one-party rule. So, when the film crew was reenacting Nazi Germany history, history also unfolded before their eyes. The remarkable mixture of fiction and history in Europa, Europa can also be credited to director Agnieszka Holland’s sensitivity to historical incidents that she herself didn’t experience. It wouldn’t be too far-stretched to say that Holland’s own life trajectory left a mark on the film. Her father’s mysterious death was associated with the secret police. She studied film in Prague (FAMU) and was thrown in jail for her participation in political movements during the Prague Spring. Like Solomon, she was once an artist in exile, separated from her daughter. (More on Holland’s background; I recommend this Q&A with Holland on Europa, Europa. Her sense of humor is incredible!)

To me, the pacing feels fast and in a way parallel to the ideological polarization between Capitalism and Communism. Five minutes into the film, I already saw a brit milah, a nudity scene, and the tragic death of a girl. The storytelling is unconventional. For one thing, circumcision is an important thread in the plotline. There is a comic effect built into every turning point. Maybe absurd is a better word to describe my experience—I kind of just freeze at frightening moments, moments when Germans attacked the protagonist’s school, when his Jewish identity was exposed to his admirer, when he was pointed with a gun, etc. I can’t tell how the protagonist Solly will react. Sometimes he’s alert, but often sometimes his behavior calls attention to the fact that he’s just a teenager.

With a sense of whimsical unexpectedness, Europa, Europa is not a purely tragic story, but it’s certainly not childish neither. Holland does not fabricate victimhood and avoids any simplification of humanity. The protagonist is not a traditionally heroic figure, and the story is more about things that he has no control over happening to him. At the Russian orphanage, Solly betrays his religion and becomes a supporter of Stalinism. He is then taught to hate and to kill by the Nazis. He sees traumatic war-time cruelties and has to make moral compromises on the fly. With his friends dying in front of him, there isn’t much reason for him to anchor his identity in his near environment. Naturally, he feels guilty and hyper stressed; his complex inner feelings are expressed through his surreal dreams, where Stalin and Hitler dance in close embrace, and Hitler is indicated to be a Jew hidden in a closet.

Although Solly’s journey is jaw-dropping, he’s never been in the ghetto. His closest encounter with other Jews’ lives is when he bypasses the ghetto in a tram run by the Nazis. Similar to how Solly only has a few glimpses of the horrifying ghetto scenes, I think the film also keeps a distance from the history and nests safely in a youth’s narrative. (If you’re interested in watching authentic imageries of the Warsaw Ghetto, check out A Film Unfinished (2010))

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