Europa, Europa: Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland’s “Europa, Europa” brings freshness, immediacy and outrage to the growing body of films about the Holocaust. An incredible story in the way that only true stories can be, it is based on the memoirs of Solomon Perel who survived the war through a chain of extraordinary events.

The first moments of Europa, Europa recount Solly’s circumcision, a physically brutal act in itself, yet nothing compared to the events he will experience later in his life.

Set between 1938 and 1945, the film presents the most harrowing aspects of his survival. Following a pogrom that kills his sister, Solly spends two years in a Communist orphanage (devoted to Stalinist indoctrination), where he becomes a model Soviet student. Fate then takes him to an elite training school for Hitler Youth, and again he excels. Solly’s odyssey is driven by his constant fear of being revealed as a Jew and his many subsequent attempts at hiding his identity.

Episodic in structure, the film contains heart-rending sequences that illustrate the strange and terrifying events that shape Solly’s destiny. In one of the film’s emotional highlights, a trolley car passes through the Lodz ghetto. Its windows have been whitewashed to protect the eyes of the Nazis from the appalling sight. Solly scratches a peephole, through which he glimpses the terrible vision of a suffering woman, possibly his mother. The frustration is unbearable: Here is a Jewish boy, who has managed to pass himself off as a Nazi hero, and yet can do nothing to alter his mother’ tragic fate.

Solly’s circumcised penis functions as the film’s chief dramatic device. It is the one unalterable fact in his life. No matter how hard he tries to change his identity, his circumcision is the one vestige of Jewishness he can’t deny. For example, a romance with a German girl, Leni (Julie Delpy), who wants to conceive a child for the Fuhrer, proves depressing; he can’t consummate the relationship because it would give him away.

Solly’s survival owes a lot to luck, but also to his charm and resourcefulness. For nearly seven years, he lives in a state of fear, knowing that the only alternative to his impersonations is death. He makes decisions about life and death instinctively. Indeed, unable to bear his secret anymore, he opens up to Leni’s mother about this Jewishness, but miraculously she doesn’t betray him. In fact, his survival instincts are so acute that he finds himself merging with the characters he plays. This adaptability is conveyed effectively by Marco Hofschneider in a strong and impassioned performance.

The achievement of Holland, who also wrote the script, is in making a deeply disturbing film that is at once accessible and engaging. The smooth direction, superb production values, and assured technique convey epic sweep without excess or melodrama. Refusing to judge Solly, Holland presents him as a boy who did what he did to survive. The film’s breathless pacing assures that the viewers have no time to ponder about issues of religion or ideology. The incidents bounce along so rapidly that one can hardly grasp the twists and turns in this amazing saga.

Like Holland’s previous film, “Angry Harvest,” which also deals with the Holocaust, the tone of “Europa, Europa” is highly moralistic, but this film is also imbued with comic vision and humor that her former work lacks.

At the end of the movie, the real Solomon Perel is briefly seen living in Israel. Facing the camera, he offers a thanksgiving hymn. He seems bewildered, as if he himself can’t believe his story.

An ironic, complex film, “Europa, Europa” is a gripping tale about the absurd unpredictability of human destiny.

Oscar Alert

“Europa, Europa” was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay, penned by director Agnieszka Holland from the memoirs of Solomon Perel.

Oscar Context

The winner was Ted Tally for the script of Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” which also won Best Picture and Best Director.