The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
“An ancient Jewish myth . . . has it that there must live on earth at one time thirty-six righteous people. Only the existence of these righteous ones justifies humanity’s continuation in the eyes of the Lord . . . [In our own time, one of these, Jewish physician and educator] Dr. Janusz Korczak, [head of the Jewish orphanage in Warsaw,] steadfastly rejected many offers to be saved from extermination in the death camps. He refused to desert in extremis the orphaned children to whose well-being he had devoted his life. As he said to those who beseeched him to save himself . . . ‘One does not leave children in a time like this.’” — Bruno Bettelheim
Written by Agnieszka Holland and directed by Andrzej Wajda, Korczak is sober, spare and very gray (it is a black-and-white film), and absent the bug-eyed theatrics and sentimentality of self-acknowledged admirer-in-chief Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). How does one find the courage to perish at Treblinka? One doesn’t “find” it because one isn’t looking for it. One is instead looking at other things—in this case, people: children, for whom the prospect of abandonment could only worsen the dire situation they faced. It isn’t courage that Wajda’s film has us contemplate; rather, it is decency, dedication, the love of children, humanity. How ironic; but for the monstrous historical context, Janusz Korczak might pass for an ordinary man.
Jewish or non-Jewish, many of us put little store in ancient myths. Yet I do believe that Korczak justified our continuation—in the eyes of God, if one chooses to put it that way. The beauty of Wajda’s fictional film is that it demonstrates this justification. Inseparable from this accomplishment is the towering performance that Wojciech Pszoniak gives as Korczak—this, the same actor who brilliantly, and frighteningly, played Robbespierre in Wajda’s Danton (1982).
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