Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Europa Europa

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

The more and more that I watch films with an eye for critical analysis, the more and more I become convinced that there is one primary factor that makes or breaks a movie. It isn’t the director, although a good one helps. There have been legions of one-hit wonders who have made one or two films that were well received (and in some cases considered classics) only to lounge in painful mediocrity for the remainder of their careers. And, even more tragic, there are countless examples of great filmmakers making terrible films. It isn’t the actors. After all, how many times have we scratched our heads and wondered why talentless hacks make $20 million a movie. It isn’t the special effects, the writing, the editing, or even the post-production. No, I am convinced that above all the most crucial element in a great movie is the story.

I have seen countless art films that were artistically bold, experimental, and daring that completely bored me and left me dispassionate. On the other hand, I have seen films with literally hundreds of millions worth of special effects that have left me bored. If a film has a great story with characters that we care about, the audience is more than willing to excuse minor technical problems like a stumbled line or a messy transition.

Every now and then, moviegoers are treated to a film with a story so incredible and fantastic that it does more than just entertain them, it stays with them forever. But these stories are rare and hard to come by. The truly great stranger than fiction stories are fleeting specters that filmmakers dream about. Solomon Perel’s story is one of these. Born in Lower Saxony in Germany, he was a survivor of the Holocaust. That alone is enough to guarantee a special story. But Perel’s is unique even among the annals of Holocaust stories. For while Jewish, he survived the Holocaust by masquerading as an ethnic German, going so far as to join the Hitler Youth and serve as a German soldier. His is a story of survival. His is a story that defies logic, chance, and even credibility. And yet, it is true. Depicted in the film Europa Europa, Perel’s story towers as one of the greatest tales to ever grace the war genre.

The very first sequence of the film is Perel’s circumcision. As the rabbis circle around the baby boy, the viewer is struck by the poignancy of the event. In one swift moment, Perel is forever marked as a member of the Tribe of Israel, a mark that will always set him apart from the ethnic Germans that he hides among. Time and again throughout the film, Perel’s circumcision proves a devastating hindrance, forcing him to avoid doctor’s exams, to shower by himself, and try painful (and ultimately futile) attempts to stretch his foreskin back. But this is more than just a physical dilemma, as it speaks to the very heart of the film: the conflict between Perel’s identity.

Director Agnieszka Holland could have made Perel a stock sympathetic victim. But instead he transforms him into a deep, conflicted character. Throughout the film, his identity is in a constant state of flux. At first, he is a German Jew living with his family. After the events of the Kristallnacht where his sister is killed, he is separated from his family when they flee to Poland. He is placed in a Soviet orphanage in Grodno where he swiftly learns Russian and joins the Komsomol. For a time, he is a model youthful Communist. But after the orphanage is attacked during Operation Barbarossa, he is arrested by German soldiers. He manages to convince them that he is a member of a German-speaking minority living outside Germany and can serve as a Russian-German translator.

Thanks to his efforts, the Germans are able to identify and arrest Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s son. Lauded as a hero, he makes new friends among the very people who attacked his family. But after several of them are killed in an attack, he tries to desert to the Soviet side. But his actions are mistaken as bravery as they lead to the surrender of a German platoon. At this point in the film, it’s difficult to say who Perel is. A Jew? A Communist? A Nazi? The simplest answer is simply a survivor, willing to join whoever will help him survive and maybe see his family again one day. Morality doesn’t even come into play.

He is then shipped off to an elite school for the Hitler Youth where he becomes one of the star pupils. He falls in love with Leni, a young German teenager who is a fierce supporter of Hitler. Several times she tries to seduce him, but Perel is forced to reject her advances, lest his circumcision reveal him. But he doesn’t officially leave her until they have a tense standoff when they discover a desecrated Jewish graveyard.

Around this time, Perel starts to have hallucinations of his family. He starts to long for the ability to express himself as a Jew. Slowly, the urge to belong overrides the urge to survive. And herein we see the total transformation of Perel. In the beginning, he was more than happy to abandon his faith and culture for the Atheistic teachings of Communism and the Anti-Semitism of the Hitler Youth. But as his conscious weighs down on him, the guilt surrounding his survival overpowers him.

As a survivor, the end of Perel’s tale is appropriately heartwarming and victorious. But the last shot of the film may be the most important. It shows the real Solomon Perel, now wizened with age, singing a Jewish folk song while overlooking a lake. Finally, he has come to understand who he truly is: Solomon Perel.

It may be difficult to believe in the validity of Solomon Perel’s story. It is filled with too many coincidences for it to seem believable. And yet, Perel’s survival proves otherwise. Some may call it a miracle; evidence of the existence of a higher power. Others will say that he was lucky and it was by pure luck and chance that he survived. I don’t think either explanation gives Perel enough credit. He truly was a survivor. Thankfully, he survived long enough to discover who he truly was. We the audience should feel glad. Firstly, we should be thankful for every survivor of that horrific tragedy. But second, we should feel thankful that such stories can forever be preserved by the power of cinema.


  1. Sounds good, the holocaust can never lose it's grim fascination, so I'll postpone reading your review till I see the movie.

  2. Well...the interesting thing is that the film is less about the Holocaust and more about one man's quest for survival. You get glimpses of death camps and ghettos, but the majority of the film takes place either on battlefields or schoolrooms.

  3. Nathanael Hood, I just stopped by to check out your wonderful blog. I would be honored to write a film noir article for you. I will get started on it right away. Thank you for asking.

    Dawn, from Noir and Chick Flicks.

  4. Au Revoir mes Enfants was another such!

  5. Great review!

    I love this stranger than fiction type stories, so I'll add this film to my list. Even though Holocaust themed films are exactly my thing but this one does look different...

    BTW last night I watched a recent but little known film called "Bronson", have you seen it? if you haven't then I would recommend it, it's quite unique.

  6. Actually...I've been meaning to see Bronson for some time now....

  7. @Hey Dawn!

    Thanks for agreeing to write for us! If you want to discuss let article more, just let me know.

  8. @Rana

    Indeed. Although...that is really the only comparison that can be made about the two films. They are stylistically and thematically different.

  9. Nathanael, I tried to send you a email, with email address provided on this page. It did not go through. :(

  10. That's strange........

    Well...you can leave me comments on this site and I'll be sure to get it.

    I don't know why the email didn't work for you...it's the one that I use...

  11. I saw this film 20 years ago and have never forgotten it.. i have never heard a mention of it since.. i search charity shops hoping to find a copy of it.. i have over 500 war videos. this film eluded me.. i.m elated that somebody has recognised this film as a superb classic and added it to this worthwhile Classics of Yesterday site.. Phil..

  12. Why thank you, Phil!

    I agree with you that this is a story that is impossible to forget!

    And, wow! You have a massive video collection! I'm jealous!

  13. Any ideas about the significance of the title? The myth of Europa doesn't seem to have anything to do with it... was that the name of an operation of sorts, or a reference to something I'm not familiar with?

  14. I honestly don't have any idea....

    The term "Europa" isn't mentioned in the film....that is...unless I missed it due to the thick European accents.....

  15. This is actually an old favourite of mine.

    Sorry about the lack of contribution, a lot of work/procrastination lately.

  16. Ah, don't worry about it. I've been freakishly busy myself, recently.

  17. a very nice movie , i just don't know why this movie is not so popular . fantastic piece of art .

  18. Thanks rahul! I agree that it is an incredible piece of art that deserves more attention. That's why I wrote this article!