Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) (1990)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) – 1990

Director – Agnieszka Holland

Starring – Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, and Solomon Perel

What’s more uplifting than a story of a young Jewish boy lasting out the war by imitating those who want him dead?  Apparently, it’s that exact same story plus the lusty escapades of a hormone addled teen movie tossed in for fun.  It’s the lighter side of the Nazi fueled war machine!

Like I said already, as far as Jewish survival stories set during World-War II go, this one was surprisingly lusty and light.  Though the main character, Salomon’s, journey is a difficult one, it was oddly punctuated by sexual encounters, camaraderie with those who want him dead, and seemingly, the joys of growing up.  Also, oddly enough, deep in the heart of Nazi, Germany, this young interloper manages to find a surprising number of sympathetic people who help him along the way.  One or even two instances along these lines seem plausible, human nature even, but as many lucky breaks as young Solomon gets during the length of the movie skews the film into the realm of the surreal, and removes from it, some of the danger that other films such as Schindler’s List, and The Pianist seem to exude from their very pores.

While that fact doesn’t make it a bad film, as such, it definitely makes it unique.  An oddity even.  Seeing it now, through the lens of history, makes the film seem somewhat in-authentic.  A farce dressed in the clothes of history.  If dramatized reality has taught me anything, it’s that people who are/were Nazis weren’t really people, clearly they were actually just murderous machines, blindly spewing rhetoric and hate (sarcasm).  I realize of course that the film is a biographical one, and tells the actual story of a very real Salomon Perel, it is just a novel thing to see a film that doesn’t completely demonize Nazi’s, and in many ways treats them as people too, and some of them are worth our pity.

Though it served to lessen the overall impact of the horrors of war in general, and the holocaust in particular, this general humanity that was  bestowed upon the antagonists was indeed a refreshing change from the usual.  Not only does our main character struggle with feelings of fear, jealousy, lust, and love, but so do the people who condemn him so, and it’s not only limited to the Germans.  We see the human side of the whole of eastern Europe, with realistic portraits of Poles, and Russians as well as the Germans who Salomon encounters on his path through the war.

Being a young man at the age where hormones threaten to take control of the thought processes, Salomon indulges himself quite a bit in some pretty shockingly dangerous ways, some of which threaten his safety, others of which are the only things keeping him alive.  One of his amorous encounters with an instructor in the Hitler youth, has him (a Jew) being compared loudly, and often, in a sexual way to the “fuhrer” himself (the accuser of Jews).  This film was never one I’d talked about, or read on during film school, so I’m not sure if I am to infer this comparison to mean that even Hitler is/was a human being, or if it was relying solely on the irony of the situation to inject humor, and a sense of heightened stakes into the situation.  I like the idea that this film might have been making a bold statement, so I choose to believe that it humanizes everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, at no point do I think that the actions of the Nazi party, or of Adoph Hitler deserve a pass, or even a re-evaluation.  I don’t.  All I’m saying is that the only path forward from a wound as great as the Holocaust is acceptance and ultimately forgiveness.  I was surprised to find that forgiveness in this film along side the anger, fear, joy, and sadness that every human is capable of.

So, Europa, Europa wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I started it, and looking at it objectively, I would say it doesn’t have as much impact as the Schindler’s Lists or The Pianists, or even something as singular of purpose as the incomparable, Inglourious Basterds.  Still, the tale of Salomon Perel is one that seeks to open the eyes, as well as the mind.  It chooses a different formula through which to process this history, deal with it, and ultimately heal both the physical as well as psychological wounds left on the soul of a people by the holocaust.  Like I said, it is not the most effective, it’s not even my favorite, but it’s a new take on the same old story we’re used to.  Not just a tale of one survivor, but of many, and that is why it made it on this list.

The Pianist (2002)

Pianist

The Pianist – 2002

Director – Roman Polanski

Starring – Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann

Starting out, The Pianist had a lot to go up against.  Watching this film, I was constantly comparing it to Schindler’s List.  For a while the two movies tracked together in terms of story.  In each we are walked step by step through the lives and experiences of the Jewish people affected by the Nazi’s and the horrible events that came from Hitler’s “final solution”.  There is a point of diversion between the two films though, where our main character Wladyslaw Szpilman is spared a trip to the concentration camps but is forced to live a torturous existence in and out of hiding in Warsaw, Poland.  Where as Schindler’s List documented the horror and gritty realities of a whole group of people, The Pianist focuses on the guilt and pain, trials and tribulation suffered by one man.  The film carefully shows the depths to which our main character was forced to go, and illustrates just how hideous these events really were.  Without this crucial difference, the Pianist would have been a pale imitator of what Spielberg had already accomplished nearly a decade before.

The beginning of The Pianist didn’t have the weight or grittiness that I associate with that timeframe (granted, it’s mostly from old photographs, and newsreel footage).  Everything was almost too sterile and clean.  This could possibly be a reflection on the outlook of the main character and his family, after each new travesty commenting “…it can’t possibly get any worse…”.  This sterility gave me false expectations of what was to come, not that I didn’t expect the Nazi’s to do horrible things, only that I didn’t know quite how bad the living conditions were to get.

Adrien Brody as the tortured Szpilman turns in his best performance, both to date, and since.  Restrained and quiet, we see the atrocities play out on his face as much as we do on the screen.  His transformation from healthy, bright-eyed musician into the bedraggled, jaundiced mess that he becomes before the end of the film is intense.  If you were to look at images of both ends of the spectrum, there would be no way of knowing how he got from one end to the other.  In a seemingly constant state of free fall, his character does what actors are trained to do from day one, and is constantly reacting to what happens around him.

The cinematographer, Pawal Edelman, utilizes the color of this world to great effect.  The richness of the color is slowly being sapped out throughout the two and a half hour runtime, we don’t notice the change until one of the very last scenes where we go from a shot composed of grays and bleak browns to a shot of the setting sun with bright yellows and oranges, and rich green grass.  It must have seemed quite similar to the survivors of the holocaust when it was finally over for them.

This film has a lot of power, and while it isn’t quite as much of a master work, or as revelatory as Schindler’s List was for me, it is definitely an important piece of film which documents an important piece of history.

” Don’t be fooled by the title, The Pianist is neither a musical nor a porn. ” – Ashley