Agnieszka Holland’s unsentimental Europa Europa, from France and Germany, is based on Salomon Perel’s account of his actual experiences. A Jew, “Sali” eluded German capture before and during the war. Holland’s mother was Catholic; her father, Jewish.
In 1938 Germany, Sali is indulging in a bath just prior to his bar mitzvah—arithmetic sets his age at 15, not 13—when Krystallnacht breaks out, shattering the glass of his father’s storefront and claiming the life of his only sister, Bertha. His parents send Sali to Poland, his father’s homeland, in the care of older brother Isaac, from whom he becomes separated. (Sali is the youngest of four sons.) Sali flees to the east, to escape the Nazis, while Aryans flee westward, to escape Bolsheviks. Stalin and Hitler have signed their non-aggression pact (later, in a surreal fantasy, the two dictators unconvincingly dance together), and the partitioning of Poland is underway. Sali’s voiceover deftly relates points in his personal history to general history.
At a Grodno orphanage Sali learns Marxist ideology and Russian, but the 1941 German invasion separates him from the protection of the teacher with whom he is smitten. His adolescence has fallen into a pattern of separation, loss, adaptability, even opportunism; serendipity as well as tragedy seems to be accompanying Sali. Eventually he masquerades (as “Jupp” Peters) as a Nazi youth, becoming a bilingual interpreter once the Germans capture Stalin’s son.
Holland’s “superficial” style prods us to consider what, following Sali’s lead, she has left out: the psychological consequences of a Jew’s pretending to be a Nazi. Sali’s reunion with his one surviving family member, overwhelmingly moving, postpones a fuller damage assessment.
That comes with another teenaged boy’s story. Europa Europa is best grasped in concert with Holland’s next film, Olivier, Olivier (1992).*
* Please see my essay on Olivier, Olivier under “film reviews” elsewhere on this site.
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