Based on Uri Orlev’s autobiographical novel, The Island on Bird Street is a fine film, from Denmark, about the Holocaust. Like Lars von Trier’s brilliant Breaking the Waves the previous year, it is a Danish film that has been made in English to broaden the base of its market. I first saw it on the big screen, at the Portland[, Oregon,] International Film Festival. In the United States, however, rather than being shown in theaters, it was distributed to television. As a result, it won Emmys as the outstanding program in its category and for both the director, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and its lead actor, Jordan Kiziuk. This makes up a bit for the television academy’s failure a year or two earlier to similarly recognize Mark Gordon’s exquisite documentary Children Remember the Holocaust (1996), another exceptional Holocaust film about children.
The setting, the evacuated Warsaw Ghetto, is barricaded behind a spotless façade; inside, it’s a loose and looming structure of rubble, crashing beams, exposed former living and working quarters, all the result of having been repeatedly dynamited to ferret out each remaining hiding Jew. Waiting with absolute faith for his father’s promised return, an eleven-year-old boy survives largely on his own, dodging patrols of invading Germans determined to leave no Jew alive. This is Alex, whom Kiziuk so believably and compellingly plays.
Kragh-Jacobsen, since this film inducted into the Dogme movement in Danish cinema (von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are other members), has fashioned an absorbing fable of childhood adaptability, resourcefulness, courage and hope; he has given his material, also, the dark splendor of an edgy fairy tale—and just in the nick of time, since the result violates the Dogme rule of naturalism. Alex evolves into a prince, or a disinherited king, whose domain, in exile, is this fairy-tale kingdom, a place of solemn enchantment riddled by dreadful dangers. Outside, while the boy hides and everywhere climbs around, other Jews are being herded away to their fates.
By its juxtaposition of Alex and other Jews, Kragh-Jacobsen’s film has little trouble making a single lucky boy an ironic index of the tragic unluckiness of so many millions of others. To be sure, Kragh-Jacobsen is helped by what we already know; author Orlev did survive, and countless others did not. But, artfully, Kragh-Jacobsen has helped to impart to Alex an aura of special protection, a sense of benign destiny that deepens the material, by implication, to disclose to our imaginations the price that so many Jews paid for not having been enrobed in Alex’s good fortune. It is the idea that mediates between the sober material and its fantastic presentation, and shame on the Dogme movement if today it would discourage or disallow this mediation.
Throughout the film, the idea works beautifully. Kragh-Jacobsen’s film never loses grip of the true nature of Alex’s blown-up “castle,” nor of the historical context that pressures the fairy tale into implications of deepest tragedy.
Alex must hew to his fate; he must wait for his father. At the same time, when a Gentile family, initially hostile to him, offers to take Alex away with them, we are thrown into a rare panic, for we know how fragile a fairy tale can be, and what an unhappy ending may await any small child in a vicious and perilous world. But, of course, it is precisely Alex’s foolishness, from a realistic perspective, that drives into our hearts his “special” status, the sheer luck of his outcome, which in turn enables Kragh-Jacobsen to achieve the completion of the film’s central idea.
I must say, though, that the boy’s rambunctious spirit better serves the film than does the occasional sense that The Island on Bird Street is unfolding to meet a preordained finish. When Alex’s father returns, I didn’t feel much joy; the event felt, rather, anti-climactic.
Ian Wilson, Kragh-Jacobsen’s cinematographer, achieves colors that are at once dark and airy; dim and subdued, the images nonetheless admit thrilling shafts of light. (Be forewarned, though: the video version considerably lightens the intended tonalities, robbing the film of much of its dark grandeur.) In conjunction with Norbert Scherer’s prize-winning production design, Kragh-Jacobsen and Wilson achieve a vision, pitched between reality and fairy tale, that recalls the Dickensian London conjured, in gorgeous black and white, in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948).