Why Wasn't He There

(Senkifoldje)

Toronto Festival, Sept. 13, 1993–A film of great pictorial beauty, Why Wasn't He There is a major contribution to the cinematic literature about childhood and the Holocaust. Set in Hungary during WWII, rivetting tale focuses on the growing up of a Jewish girl. Subtle, contemplative, stylized picture should be embraced by film festivals and art-house audiences.

The protagonist of this epic film is Eva, a 13-year-old Jewish girl who lives in the countryside of Budapest with her extended family. Recording her life in a personal diary, Eva begins with the astute observation that she didn't get her customary birthday party, because her grandmother felt that “we don't need Jewish kids showing off when our country is bleeding.”

For his saga, writer-director Andras Jeles uses a coherent point of view: the shattering events that took place in Hungary during the War are seen from the subjective point of view of Eva, who is narrating the film. Why Wasn't He There relates how a rich, peaceful Jewish family life is totally devastated when the Nazis invades Hungary and the Jews are sent to labor and later concentration camps.

At first innocent of the changing political setting, Eva tries to live a normal, routine life. But she is forced into rapid maturation as soon as some of her family members are arrested and others are forced to wear the Yellow Star. The crucial scene in which her bicycle is confiscated by the authorities provides a turning point–and one of the film's most ravishing images.

The structure is episodic, unfolding as a series of bittersweet, and at times even humorous, tableaux of family life. Avoiding melodramatic treatment, Jeles' greatest achievement is in making a stylized, somehow detached film, but one that doesn't lose the immediate relevance of its message. This quiet, delicate story takes the form of a surreal dream that turns into a haunting nightmare. Tibor Mathe's expressionistic cinematography facilitates this transition by using both black-and-white and color imagery.

The viewers' advanced knowledge of the Holocaust catastrophe only adds to the emotional experience of Why Wasn't He There, a landmark film that captures the zeitgeist of the era in a vivid, most arresting, manner.