The tragedy of Czechoslovakia, including its cutting-up, and the ceding of the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938 as part of the West’s pursuit of a policy of “appeasement” in the hope of averting war: this, and other benchmark events in Czech history before and after the outbreak of World War II, appear in bits of authentic black-and-white newsreels that interrupt the slick, in-color surface of Vsichni moji blízcí (All My Loved Ones), a film about a Jewish Czech family, its peace undone, that is, like countless other families’, families headed for the Holocaust. His father, Jakub Silberstein, gives ten-year-old David his first pair of long pants before turning him over to the kindertransports, the organized transport to British safety of endangered continental Jewish children. Sosa, his girlfriend, is supposed to go with David, but a mix-up in the arrangements delays her departure until September 1, 1939. Sosa’s face at the train station is that of a lost soul, and the imagery evokes our memories of a similarly haunting scene in Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Sosa will not make it to England; there will be no safety for her, no reunion with her play-groom from a secret wedding ceremony. (How René Clément’s 1952 Forbidden Games hangs over this film!) On September 1, Great Britain declares war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland. This aborts the rescue operation. David’s parents might have joined their son also, but the friend to whom they paid a fortune to secure their own safe transport ran off with the money. David will be the lone survivor. Already an uncle of his, a musician, has committed suicide because the Nazis haven’t permitted him to give paid concerts, and because the family of the Gentile girl with whom he fell in love has rejected the possibility of their marriage—this, after the man’s brother, a rabbi, reluctantly gave his consent to it.
Matej Minac’s first film is drawn from the memories of one of the children whom Nicholas Winton, a twentysomething British stockbroker, rescued because, as he puts it in the film, “There was a need.” This child grew up to be Minac’s mother. Winton’s operation rescued more than 600 Czech children—and about 10,000 European children, total. BBC footage of a 1998 reunion between the actual Winton and the actual souls he long ago rescued bring the film to a tidally (and tidily) irresistible close.
So sincere and heart-piercing a film as this mutes formal criticism. Few movies have so disabled me, leaving me (like Winton at the reunion!) helplessly adrift in a sea of tears. By the end, I could scarcely catch my breath.
As much of a formal mess as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), whose popularity surely helped motivate its production, Minac’s film is nonetheless far more appealing. Why?
For one thing, Winton is a genuine hero. What he did is unblemished by controversy. By contrast, of the thousand or so persons Oskar Schindler “rescued,” only about three dozen of those originally on his “list” were left alive at the end of the war—his list, that is, of Jewish prisoners of the Nazis who worked in Schindler’s factory without pay, and a list from which he, an esteemed Nazi Party member, periodically selected souls for extermination, replacing and adding to their numbers with sturdier workers. Minac, then, has no job of whitewashing such as Spielberg had to do—and which Spielberg was blithely willing to do by basing his film on a novel, that is, a piece of fiction, by a Catholic author whose irresponsible aim was to rehabilitate its Catholic subject at the expense of historical accuracy. For another thing, Minac’s film does not focus on Winton, unlike Spielberg’s film, which focuses on Schindler; its focus is the Silbersteins. Because this family is large and various, Minac is able to portray a wide range of Jewish life, including secular, non-observant Jewish life, and this, in turn, enables him to address—through the back door, as it were, without making a labored to-do about it—the degree to which assmilated Jews were trapped between their identities as Czech citizens and their ethnic/religious identities, which, ironically, their enemies insisted upon. Moreover, there is another important issue that Minac is able to address—another way in which Jewish Czechs found themselves trapped, in this instance, between a rock and a hard place: their commitment to the idea of family and their love for their children. Normally, these matters coincide, each informing and strengthening the other. But that is not the case, as here, when parents must sacrifice the idea of family by giving up their children to the possibility of the children’s greater safety away from them. Jakub’s vacillations—his initial unwillingness to be separated from his son—is best understood in the context of this conundrum. By contrast, Schindler’s List—see my piece on it—engages no real issues but merely sentimentally exploits the Holocaust as Spielberg pursues (like Schindler!) profits and peer esteem. If its slickness, structural disarray (because it zigs and zags amongst so many different Silbersteins), and Forbidden Games-clichés as it “enters” the world of the children, David and Sosa, sometimes put us off, All My Loved Ones still retains a charm, an appeal. There is nothing to hate about it,* as there is in the case of Spielberg’s bug-eyed, far more manipulative melodrama.
Jirí Hubac wrote the script—and guess-who briefly plays the friend who sells Jakub the estate in Prague before heading for safety in the United States? Jirí Menzel, the director of Closely Watched Trains (1966).
* However, I would have excised Jakub’s improbable remark that God at times seems anti-Semitic.
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