! Critic Judy Stone
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Europa Europa

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, ironic flair.

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 Solly.

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 Stalin's son.

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