Polish director Agnieszka Holland has directed 14 feature films in a 45-year career. Dan Slevin starts with her best-known picture.
Time has turned Europa, Europa into a bit of an oddity, an adaptation of a memoir by a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who made it through only by – like many others tried I suppose – pretendeding not to be Jewish.
The difference in the case of Solly Perel is that he actually ended up in an elite corps of the Hitler Youth, a situation full of both irony and peril.
I don’t know whether it was the relative optimism of the time it was made – the Berlin Wall coming down, a progressive united Europe looking like a hedge against the kind of extremism that overtook Germany in the '30s, or a brave new world of technology, communication and tolerance – but the film often takes on a flippant or comedic tone (alternating with some unspeakable horrors, of course).
Maybe it’s because we see these adventures – Solly makes his way from Germany to Poland and back again via a Soviet orphanage, Wehrmacht unit and then this exclusive Hitler Youth academy – through the eyes of a naïve young boy (pretty Marco Hofschneider), a young man with an eye for the ladies.
It’s a shaggy dog story, a road movie with ironies by the hatful, often reminding me of black comedies like Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall or the John Lennon vehicle How I Won the War.
But the moments of horror are more about the absurdity, illogicality and banality of the Nazi regime or the sheer randomness of fate, rather than having dramatic power in their own right.
Europa, Europa did not go down all that well in Germany on release and wasn’t chosen as their entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award, but the screenplay (by Holland) got a ‘Best Adapted’ nomination, losing out to The Silence of the Lambs.
One of the many pleasures of a project like this is learning about even more films you previously weren’t aware of.
The four films Holland made in Poland before heading to Europe and then into the American mainstream, for example.
Her first Western film To Kill a Priest (1988) (made in the West, not actually a Western... oh, never mind) was based on the real life assassination of dissident Polish priest Jerzy Popiełuszko and in 1997 she adapted Henry James' novel Washington Square.
Turns out I’d already seen Total Eclipse, her brilliant 1995 film about the relationship between Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Verlaine (David Thewlis), as well as Copying Beethoven (2006) in which one her regular collaborators, Ed Harris, plays the great composer.
In recent years Holland has been working steadily in boutique American television, directing episodes of The Wire, The Killing, Tremé and House of Cards, but in 2011 she returned to the Holocaust with a film called In Darkness that received a best Foreign Language Oscar nomination that year.
Europa, Europa is out of print as a new DVD but is still available from Fatso, Aro Street, Videon, etc.
Annoyingly for me, the Fatso disc I saw was a 4:3 ratio letterboxed presentation showing how old the release was. It’s not currently available for streaming or download in New Zealand.
#52filmsbywomen2017 is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women. Dan will be posting one new review a week throughout 2017.