Conventional wisdom holds that you should know as little as possible about films before watching them, in order to form a clear and unbiased opinion. And then there are films like 1990’s Europa Europa. I think a lot of people would dismiss this film if they went into it cold.
Director Agnieszka Holland (who also wrote the script using additional material from Paul Hengge) eschews the “based on a true story” intertitle that would become ubiquitous a few years later. There is a brief voiceover at the beginning to introduce Solek, the protagonist, but no indication that he is anything but a fictional character. This matters because Holland is sticking pretty close to the facts, and what happens to Solek (Marco Hofschneider) basically defies belief.
Europa Europa is an adaptation of a memoir by Solomon Perel called Hitlerjunge Salomon, or Hitler Youth Solomon. It tells how Perel, a teenaged Jewish boy, successfully convinced the Nazis he was an ethnic German.
Solek’s family is in Germany at the beginning of the film, but they move to Poland to flee Nazi oppression. When Poland falls, Solek’s parents insist he and his brother Isaac seek shelter with the Soviets. The two are separated, and a Russian soldier takes Solek to a Soviet orphanage.
In the orphanage, Solek does not have to hide his Jewish heritage. He becomes part of the Komsomol (Communist youth organization) and denounces all religion. All this comes to an end when Hitler arrives in Poland. The orphanage is evacuated, and Solek finds himself alone. He is captured by Germans and manages to convince them he is an ethic German, too.
The Germans take Solek on as an interpreter due to his language skills. He has a place-but he must worry constantly about someone discovering his secret. The situation becomes even more precarious when Solek is sent to an elite school for Hitler Youth and becomes interested in a German girl (Julie Delpy). Each day, it becomes a little tougher to maintain his assumed identity.
Europa Europa takes an unconventional approach to telling a Holocaust story, but I think it works. This is a film about a young man thrust into a horrific situation, who survives by any means that he can. Holland keeps us within Solek’s point of view and reflects his wavering states of mind through voiceovers. She also provides several vivid dream sequences- one inside the Komsomol building has Hitler and Stalin dancing with each other. Hofschneider gives an unforced and believable performance.
Delpy, in a smaller role, is quite effective. The real Solomon Perel shows up for a moving cameo at the end.
The production design by Allan Starski and work of the art department deserve a mention for their recreations of the Komsomol buildings and Hitler Youth school. Jacek Petrycki’s cinematography exquisitely recreates the period.
If you did not know this film was based on a true story, all the coincidences would probably start to strain credibility. As it is, you really have to marvel at the number of near misses and quirks of fate in the life of Solomon Perel.
Holland stuck fairly close to the facts, but there are deviations. The film shows Solek’s sister being killed during Kristallnacht in 1938; actually, she died in a concentration camp in 1944. Solek’s relationship with a German girl was exaggerated for dramatic effect. The film’s dramatic ending is largely fictional.
Near the end of World War II, a U. S. Army unit captured Perel but released him a day later. Perel traveled to his birthplace, where he learned his brother Isaak was living in Munich. Although Perel travelled to be with Isaak, he did not stay. He left to be with his other brother, David, who had immigrated to Palestine.
Shortly after Perel’s arrival in Palestine, the Arab-Israeli War broke out. Perel served in the Israeli Army and later became a businessman. He married a woman of Polish descent, and they raised their sons in Israel.
Perel finally went back to Germany, for a visit, in 1985. While there, he visited some of the men he knew from the Hitler Youth. At last, he could tell them his secret. One of them said, “Now I know why you were always wearing your underwear in the shower.”
Theme: Assumed Identities
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Assumed Identities: List For Week Ending August 20, 2017 http://www.thinkingcinema.com/assumed-identities-list-for-week-ending-august-20-2017/
McDaniel College: http://www2.mcdaniel.edu/german/1125/europaeuropa.htm
Senses Of Cinema: http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/europa-europa/
University of California, Santa Barbara: