Salomon Perel’s true story of surviving Hitler’s Germany by passing himself off as an Aryan has been made into a beautifully scaled mini-epic of irony. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d swear Europa Europa was written with a sly wink by the foxy Isaac Bashevis Singer—it has his kind of sex-tinged, wicked, cheeky perversity. Here’s a movie in which the Nazis can’t keep their lusty hands off a Jew. At the center is so unethnically handsome a fella—played by Marco Hofschneider—that not only doesn’t he look Jewish, he doesn’t look German or Polish either. With lustrous dark hair, cherubic face, he’s a petulant, sexy schlemiel without any outward identity; it’s his misfitted gentility that attracts and confounds his captors. But there’s one identifiable feature and it’s the most dangerously definitive of all—his circumcised penis. Salomon learns early that when the Nazis discover you’re cut, you’re dead. The panic of terror and discomfort in hiding the evidence is a funny horror show that affects half the audience—men physically shift in their seats. (The disguise is somewhat like Singer’s Yentl The Yeshiva Boy—but without crotch anxiety.) Hofschneider isn’t much of an actor—he can’t convey the variables of emotions required of him, and though he’s speaking German and Russian, his line readings lack conviction, never matching the blissful innocence. In his defense, had he caught all the right actorish nuances, he wouldn’t have been the unwitting survivor-hero we find so appealing. When he’s running away naked, using his hands to cover his Jewish identity, or surrendering to the Russians, or cavorting in front of a mirror, or is bayonetting a dummy with a Jewish star over its heart, he’s the anxious, terrified young boy with a severe case of the shpilkes he needs to be. Agnieszka Holland is one of Poland’s few women filmmakers. Not knowing this, you’d assume the movie was made by an experienced male director. This is high compliment—Europa Europa is another example of 1991’s bumper crop of confidently directed movies. What kind of diets were Holland, Oliver JFK Stone, John Boyz in the Hood Singleton and Ridley Thelma & Louise Scott on? Holland doesn’t wimp out about Germany’s anti-Semitism—her scenes fulminate with hate and racism. At the same time we’re surprised at how effectively unrehashable they are; she captures the pervasiveness of the final solution without ever going to the crematoria. She even gets into the dumb-dumb humor of the anti-Semitic dogma about Jewish physicality without it being too offensive. She loads her movie with some goodies: three fantasy dreams (two featuring Hitler), a marvellous bit with the Nazis about to be overun by the advancing Russians, turning their fire on the movie’s hero, and a symbolic joint urination of two brothers. Holland also covers the basics: just when you wonder how Salomon will escape detection of his circumcision, out comes the solution. There is one bad touch—the recurring, faked Nino Rota music borrowed from The Godfather. Unlike The Nasty Girl, which is like a Woody Allen home movie (its ending appeals to those who love his infatuation with psychosis), Europa Europa was denied an Oscar nomination and probable win for Best Foreign Picture because Germany refused to enter it. You know why—the country doesn’t wish to be reminded of its fuddy-duddy anthropological propaganda, especially since it’s resurging again among its youth. It’s been until very recently unofficial German policy to avoid its horrific history in order not to repeat it. That’s what makes Europa Europa a double whammy: you can’t uncut what is so distinctly a part of your heritage, and to try to is sure to spread an insidious infection that is worse than the humiliating public cure.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.