The incredible true story of a Jewish boy's wartime
survival as an interpreter in the Nazi army is
dramatized with considerable humor and verve in "Europa,
Europa". Despite its grim background, the
production, which premiered at the 1991 San Francisco
International Film Festival, is quite different
from other Holocaust productions.
In recreating the fantastic adventures of Solomon
Perel, director Agnieszka Holland not only shows
a lively appreciation for his anguish and his adolescent
desires, but she also illuminates the mentality of
mass ideological movements — both Fascist and Communist.
That is a large order and Holland, a Polish-born,
Paris-based director, carries it out with acute,
Her exceptionally vivid screenplay is based on the
autobiography of Perel, who now lives in Israel.
Marco Hofschneider plays him with irresistible appeal.
The teenage years of Perel, who was born in Germany
in 1925 to Polish-Jewish parents, were marked by
a series of escapes from peril. Just as he was preparing
for his Bar Mitzvah in 1938, Hitler unleashed the
ominous event of Kristalnacht: 280 synagogues were
set on fire, 7500 Jewish businesses were destroyed
and 30,000 arrests were made. With stones crashing
through the bathroom window, Solly jumps out of the
tub and dives naked into a beer barrel outside a
nearby tavern. It is his first close call with danger.
When his family relocates in Poland, he has a taste
of normal life, romancing an usherette at the local
movie theater, but the Nazis' pact with the Soviets
puts an end to any semblance of peace. His brother
David, who tries to join the Polish army, is told
that there aren't enough guns to supply Jews. For
safety, Solly and another brother, Isaac, are sent
to the Soviet Union, but the boys are separated in
a hectic scene in which Poles rush to the west to
escape the Russian army while Jewish refugees flee
toward the Soviet Union.
Captured by the Russians, Solly is put in a Soviet
orphanage for two years. He catches the eye of a
pretty commissar and becomes a devout young Communist.
In some revealing scenes at the school, the incendiary
tensions between Poles, Jews and Communists are laid
bare. When students are indoctrinated with the theory
that religion is the opiate of the masses, Zenek,
a Polish boy whose father is a prisoner of the Russians,
bursts out, "It's not true that God doesn't
exist" and directs an anti-Semitic tirade against
The teacher's lesson about prayers to God and prayers
to Stalin ends with a tartly funny sequence involving
candies from "heaven."
Zenek, sharply played by Andrzej Mastalerz, tries
again to get Solly into trouble when the Nazis overrun
the school, but Solly's perfect German wins the confidence
of the troops. They are even more impressed when
he interprets for Russian prisoners of war — including
Although he's quaking in his boots, Solly's pleasing
personality wins the admiration of the German officers
— and he embarks on his strange trapeze dance with
fate. Before long, he becomes the pet of the troops,
while dreading exposure if anyone should become aware
of his circumcision. His secret is discovered — and
kept — by Kellerman, an independent-minded soldier,
a homosexual actor who becomes Solly's friend.
"Is it difficult playing someone else?" asks
Solly, who once entertained vague aspirations about
being a movie star. "It's easier than being
yourself," replies Kellerman, who is performed
with sad grace by Andre Wilms.
The captain (Hanns Zischler) wants to adopt Solly
and sends him to Berlin to be trained at a Hitler
Youth School, where his masquerade grows more and
more difficult and his guilt about surviving haunts
him. A love affair with Leni, a pretty young Nazi
(Julie Delpy) strains his equilibrium almost to the
breaking point; but her mother (Halina Labonarska)
is a warm reminder that some people managed to avoid
being poisoned by the Nazi ideology.
Holland, who made the immensely moving "Angry
Harvest" (about the relationship between a Polish
farmer and a Jewish woman whom he hides during the
war) never simplifies her characters. These are all
complex people, trying to cope with the extraordinary
circumstances of their lives.
In her exploration of Perel's strange life, Holland
is asking the viewer to contemplate the question
of identity: "What is a man in the 20th century?
Does our fate depend on us, on our choice of actions,
or are we playthings of history, swept along in an
absurd existence? Where is that fragile line between
different cultures, different religions, different
national or personal identities?"
About the title, Holland has pointed out that "there's
an ambiguity surrounding the word "Europe". Europe
is something nostalgic, representing values of culture
and morality in modern civilization. But alongside
this rich heritage is the capacity to engender the
most unimaginable atrocities."
San Francisco Chronicle July 3, 1991