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.