Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holland at MoMA: Europa, Europa

Getting outclassed by the Hollywood Foreign Press is pretty pathetic, but that is what happened to the Academy Awards with Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa. More than even Hoop Dreams, it serves as a lingering rebuke of the arbitrary rules established by the Academy in the specialized categories. In a year when Holland’s film was universally hailed as a masterpiece and did indeed win the Golden Globe for best foreign film, the governing German film authority refused to submit it for consideration for the best foreign language Oscar. Coincidentally, it happened to be about the Holocaust. Screening as part of the MoMA’s continuing Holland retrospective, Europa (trailer here) still holds up as a superior film, even in a season notable for a surplus of Holocaust related pictures (of widely varying quality).

Solomon Perel was an ordinary thirteen year old who had the bad fortune to come of age in the Europe of the late 1930’s. After losing a sister during Kristallnacht his father looks East for sanctuary. Born in Lodz, he hastily arranges Polish citizenship for his family, but it is only a temporary reprieve. When the Germans and Soviets partition Poland, he sends Perel and his brother Isaak east again. Separated from Isaak, Perel is taken in by a Soviet orphanage, where he parrots Communist ideology, eventually joining the Komsomol. Again fate intervenes, when he violates the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact.

Now accustomed to living by his wits, the native German-speaking Perel convinces the German army he is a purebred Aryan. Initially adopted as the company’s translator and mascot, Perel is eventually sent to Berlin to join the Hitler Youth as a reward for his presumed battlefield heroics. Living in a state of constant paranoia, Perel falls in love with a hardcore National Socialist girl (which might seem implausible, but she is played by Julie Delpy), yet is unable to consummate his courtship for fear his body would betray him in a moment of intimate contact. He would somehow escape many close calls to tell his tale, as Europa is in fact based on his memoir.

Perel survived the war hiding in the bellies of both Twentieth Century beasts, and Europa illustrates clear similarities between the two. Both the National Socialist and Communist schools are shown to be more about indoctrination than education. Both preach forms of hate, directed either against religion and class enemies, or the Jews.

In Holland’s hands, Europa becomes an epic story of survival, viewed from an intensely intimate perspective. While some scenes might feel a bit contrived, several are unforgettable, like a rare moment of humanity Perel shares with the mother of his Aryan girlfriend. Also the sequences in which Perel tries to fix his anatomical tell are physically painful to watch. Just how good an actor Marco Hofschneider is might be debatable, but his appearance of being constantly overwhelmed by events around him is actually perfect for the role of young Perel.

When initially released, Europa was somewhat controversial for depicting a Jewish character surviving (and at times even thriving) as a member of the Hitler Youth. However, Europa never glamorizes any aspect of National Socialism. To the contrary, it depicts Nazi society as sick and depraved. It is a memorable journey through the horrific ideologies of the Twentieth Century that ought to have a little gold Oscar statuette to its credit. It screens again Friday the second and Wednesday the seventh, as the Holland retrospective continues at MoMA.