Monday, August 07, 2017

Kew Gardens ’17: Persona Non Grata

Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was forbidden entry by the Soviets, expelled by the Germans, and demoted by his own foreign ministry. Those events certainly buttress a favorable judgement from history, but they did not do his career any favors. Sugihara was ill-advisedly principled throughout his diplomatic tenure, but his decision to issue travel visas to Jewish refugees while serving as the Japanese consul in Lithuania earned him recognition as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. Sugihara’s pre-war exploits and wartime heroics are chronicled in Cellin Gluck’s Persona Non Grata: The Chiune Sugihara Story (trailer here), which screens during the first ever Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

Fluent in Russian and well educated in Russian history, Sugihara aspired to a Russian posting. However, his intelligence gathering in Manchuria, with respect to the disposition of the Northern Manchuria Railroad, bitterly antagonized the Soviets. As a result, he was declared persona non grata before he was even posted to Russia. Instead, Sugihara was dispatched to Lithuania, a convenient vantage-point for watching the Soviets.

Initially, Kaunas is quite pleasant for Sugihara and his wife Yukiko. He quickly comes to an arrangement with Pesh, a maybe not-so-former Polish intelligence officer, who helps Sugihara keep tabs on the Russians and Germans, in exchange for the occasional travel document. By the time Jewish refugees, primarily but not exclusively from Poland start flooding Kaunas, Sugihara heads the only still functioning quasi-neutral consulate. Although the Tripartite Pact is an acknowledged inevitability, Sugihara starts issuing travel visas to the refugees, as quickly as he and his staff can stamp them.

Not surprisingly, the Foreign Ministry is less than ecstatic over his actions, but they transfer him to a sensitive posting in Germany anyway. Obviously, saving thousands of lives is a big deal, but there is even more to his story. In fact, the Prussian section is unexpectedly fascinating, because it offers up a very different perspective on the War.

Through Sugihara’s Cassandra-like warnings to his superiors, Gluck and co-screenwriters Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo suggest Japan always considered Russia their natural enemy, which made the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact awkward, but ironically desirable. According to the film, they were counting on Germany’s help against the Americans and British in the Pacific, but when Hitler attacked Russia, it consigned them to facing the Yanks (and Brits) alone, thereby sealing their fate. Apparently, his analysis of German intentions did not sit well with the National Socialists, who also declared Sugihara persona non grata.

Admittedly, a figure like Sugihara would be intimidating to portray, but Toshiaki Karasawa largely plays it safe (and rather stiffly). However, Koyuki is terrific as Yukiko, Sugihara’s wife and his conscience when he needs it. She perfectly delivers a pivotal exchange—too quiet and humanistic to be called a big speech—that could earn her award consideration if anyone picks up Gluck’s film. Borys Szyc is also compulsively watchable as the slightly roguish but deeply earnest Pesh.

The fact that Persona Non Grata has not screened more widely at festivals is absolutely baffling. After all, it addresses the Holocaust, as well as a past refugee crisis, which offers the appeal of contemporary relevancy. It also happens to be a good film. Unfortunately, it might be too smart for its own good. Highly recommended for the heart and mind, Persona Non Grata screens this Wednesday afternoon (8/9) as part of the inaugural Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.