Saturday, March 16, 2013

Movie – Europa Europa (1990)

Europa Europa is a German film that tells the sort of true story of Salomon Perel, a Jewish teen who hid his religion from the Nazis during World War II, even to the extent of joining the Hitler Youth.  Its original title was Hitlerjunge Salomon, which translates as “Salomon of the Hitler Youth”.  Realizing that title would not do well in English speaking countries, it was changed to Europa Europa, although there is still debate on why it has a repeated title.  The movie turned out to be one of the more popular German films released in the U.S.  The German government, though, tried to ignore it – perhaps because of the subject matter or perhaps because it was adapted and directed by a Polish woman (Agnieszka Holland).  They did not even nominate it as their Foreign Language Film entry at the Oscars.  They ended up with egg on their faces when it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and its screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

The film is not as heavy as I was expecting.  The Holocaust is only referred to in passing.  It’s more about this one boy’s story.  The film is based on the novel Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon by Salomon Perel.  It has been questioned in places where it appears the author may have embellished things (i.e. he claims to remember his circumcision as a baby), but the basics are true.  He really did end up in the Hitler Youth during World War II.

The film takes the embellishment even further, with several cliffhanger situations designed to pump up the tension.  My one real negative with the film are the resolutions to these situations.  Having a deus ex machina moment in a story is fine; it’s a well established storytelling convention.  Having two is pushing things some.  Having three, four, and five is overkill.  Europa Europa relies on these moments a little too much.

Having said that, it is still a movie well worth your time.  Marco Hofschneider (Immortal Beloved) made his film debut as the main character of Salomon Perel.  Originally his older brother Rene was going to play the part, but financing was hard to get and by the time the delay was resolved Rene was too old for the part.  Marco was then cast, and Rene remained in the film as Salomon’s older brother.

Salomon’s family is living in Germany in the late 1930s.  Their shop gets attacked and a tragedy results.  The father decides to leave Germany for his family’s safety – good move.  He figures Poland will be a much safer place for Jews to be – bad move.  It’s not long before the Germans invade.  Salomon and his brother flee east, but run into the Soviet forces invading from the west.  Salomon ends up in a Soviet orphanage (he’s around 14).  He quickly buys into the whole communist manifesto, including discarding his religion.  No small factor in this conversion is the young, very pretty teacher at the orphanage (Delphine Forest).  He spends a couple of years there.

When the Germans attack the Soviets though, Salomon ends up getting grabbed by the Nazis.  After seeing what happens to another Jew, he lies about losing his papers.  The Germans are delighted to find a “pure” German mixed in with the Poles and communists.  The fact that he can also translate Russian for them makes him a mascot for their outfit.  He even ends up serving in combat against the Russians.  He is so well-regarded that the Nazi commander is thinking of adopting him, and he ensures that Salomon (now known as Josef Peters) is sent to the top school in all of Germany.  It is where all the high-ranking Nazis send their sons to become the next generation of leaders – the Hitler Youth.

In the film Salomon is both really smart (i.e. doing recon on the bathrooms and showers to figure out how he will use them while keeping his circumcision a secret) and really dumb (i.e. trying to recreate his foreskin by tying the skin down into place.)  The latter might make some of the men watching this film cringe.  His lack of a foreskin is also a complication when a local German girl (Julie Delpy in an early role) wants to go beyond the kissing that they have been doing.

Will Salomon be found out?  If not, what must he do to maintain his cover?  If he is found out, what happens to him?  The fact that the real person wrote the book lets us know he lives, so the tension regarding his scenes is lessened by this.  It’s not so much an edge of your seat thriller as it is a story about a teenage boy trying to figure out his identity – Jew, Communist, Nazi, Other.  There is even some mild humor here and there (i.e. Salomon's girlfriend tries to flirt by pulling her turtleneck collar up over her head, inadvertently reminding him of his lack of a foreskin and having the exact opposite effect she was hoping for.)

The film is in German, Polish, Russian, and Hebrew, so there are subtitles, if you are allergic to those.  Assuming you are not bothered by subtitles, you may just end up finding a somewhat different kind of film on the Jewish experience during World War II.  I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Ha. I was completely wrong about your List film--I figured you'd do Gigi.

    I expected to like this one more than I did. Three out of five is just about right. Ultimately, I thought it was just repetitive--something happens, he worries he'll be caught, he isn't. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    1. In all honesty Gigi never even occurred to me. I liked the songs, and Caron is gorgeous, but I was disappointed by the ending (even though it was completely expected.) I'd have to think about whether I'd recommend it to others or not.

  2. I remember seeing this film a long, long time ago. I need to revisit it though.

    1. It's not really a go out right now and hunt down a copy kind of movie, but rather an if you happen across it, give it a watch. I just watched it on Netflix Instant, if you have that service.