Continuing our Top 25 Essential JEWISH MOVIES of all time:
24. Europa Europa
I’ll pose a question. With this new (yet already on the wane) sadistic, fantastically gory genre sometimes called torture porn, the hero or heroine – a typically steely eyed fellow or feisty (curvy) damsel that the audience follows throughout the movie through unspeakable trials and horrors – is often killed off in the very last frame without a hint of empathy. While all their friends got skinned or buried alive or torn apart or encased in hot wax, this protagonist somehow manages to make a break and take down 99.9% of the mutants, freaks, evil dead, or plague plundering every teen or twenty-something throughout the movie, but in the last moment before the credits, just when you thought they got away to tell the tale, that impossibly still ticking .99999% resurfaces to finalize the damn thing with the shiny tip of a pickaxe. You sit there empty and cold and wondering what you just spent the last hour and a half accomplishing. Nobody survives? Not one likably trashy character that I met in the first twenty minutes of the movie (before matters got terribly out of hand) limps away? This was a movie about an all consuming rampage of death?! The answer of course is yes. Everyone is dead. Everyone. And that’s exactly how much of the audience wanted it.
Now we have the genre called the Holocaust movie and it too has a formula. Nazi rise to power in 1930’s Europe, restrictions on Jews, ghettos, concentration camps, mass deaths and mass suffering, greed, hate, martyrdom, sacrifice, and last but not least…survival. Someone always survives. The story always centers on some form of Jewish humanity overcoming devastating odds to emerge from the ashes whole. With all the Holocaust movies released, not a single one dares to end things with the ultimate finality of all consuming death as the torture porn flicks produce with assembly line confidence. This despite the Holocaust being in essence entirely about racking up body counts and piling up corpses.
Why such freedom in the genre based in fiction and such self-imposed restrictions in the genre based in fact?
I leave the question alone for you to ponder and move to Agnieska Holland’s 1990 Holocaust film Europa Europa based on the true story of Salomon Perel. Perel survived the Nazi massacre and even lived to make an appearance in the fascinating movie about his life. He’s still around today talking to high schoolers in New Jersey and synagogue members in Florida. What makes Perel’s survival so incredible, or the rendering of any survivor story on screen so difficult to swallow, is that you honest to God would not believe it if the person weren’t right there to say “it happened.” The tremendously elaborate plot to kill all Jews is tough enough to imagine, however, the fact that so many evaded death is in hindsight a stand alone miracle.
Perel, German born, is sent away from home along with his brother (after the murder of their sister by anti-Semitic rioters) to avoid the ghettos and the hell that is to come. Perel is separated from the brother and eventually taken in by an orphanage run by the Russians occupying Poland. Through wild circumstances which are best left to a viewing of the film, Perel is captured by the Nazis but because he speaks fluent German, pretends that he was a Russian prisoner and switches sides in order to live another day. Another day turns into the entire war as Perel thrives as a promising young Nazi cadet and finally is able to switch sides again once the Russian army topples the crumbling Nazi empire. As an aside, because of the way Perel survived, I presume his “survivor’s guilt” must be tenfold those who simply were found breathing once the camps were liberated. His journey appears to be providential to say the least. While in every other Holocaust film the Nazis are depicted as masterful at sniffing out and executing Jews, Perel dodges bullet after bullet with relative ease and immense good fortune. Though he is shown to somewhat struggle with his morality in that he is befriending and taking refuge in the hospitality of the enemy, the main source of his agita is actually, well, his penis.
Europa Europa begins with infant Salomon’s bris and the boy’s glaring mark of Judaism forever haunts his reality. It can reveal and undo him at any moment. He nearly strangles the thing to a bloody pulp at one point to avoid being discovered. Besides the imminent threat of disappointing his gracious Aryan hosts with the news of his origin, his circumcised organ stands in the way of something far more pressing. You see, Salomon (undercover as Josef Peters), is quite the unintentionally charming fellow. He is an enthusiastic and earnest young man, and it seems that wherever he goes, he falls into an enviable position. Nazi commanders want to adopt him. Nazi soldiers adore him. Nazi students respect him. And most notably, the crème de la crème of Nazi maidens (played by a twenty year old Julie Delpy) desire him. Who would have thought a little piece of missing skin could have such earth shattering repercussions. I kept thinking, “Today, he would be able to just say he had it done for medical purposes.” But isn’t that the eye opening hook after all? If he did not have his bris and were living amongst the Nazis, how easy it would have been for him. How laid back . How pleasant. Just one of the dashing Hitler Youth. Making love in the fields to blonde haired blue eyed beauties. In the end, of course, his failure to become assimilated, his inability to get comfortable is what saves him when the Americans and Russians arrive. The indelible covenant with God which was the curse, becomes the blessing. Why? A cynic would answer maybe because it didn’t happen exactly the way Europa Europa claims it did.
The propitious chain of events, the radic al strokes of luck – too much – not possible.
Someone who knows the genre a little better might tell you something different. They’ll say quite astutely that Salomon Perel and his penis emerge whole from the ashes because someone always needs to survive in these movies.