on 16 September 2005
This is an extraordinarily funny film which, while it doesn't quite reach the heights of Hasek's "Good Soldier Svejk", views war from the perspective of the little man, the naïve participant caught up and swept along by the currents of history and blind obedience of those around him. While the humour does achieve moments of high farce, it is usually kept as an undercurrent, as an ironic theme, as a vital celebration of the human spirit.
In the face of horror, holocaust, and the fifty million lives swept away in the European war of 1939-1945, laughter is not only still possible, humour is not only still possible, it is obligatory, for to have killed the ability to laugh and smile would have been to have destroyed the human spirit and allowed darkness to triumph. "Europa Europa" looks at war with an almost childlike vision, but a childlike vision refracted by years of adult distance and the ability to perceive the ridiculous, the risible, the raucous even in the midst of nightmare.
Based on a true story, apparently, "Europa Europa" follows the travails of teenage Solomon Perel as he flees a pogrom in his native Germany, returns to the family's Polish roots, only to witness the 1939 invasion. He flees to the Russian side of the dismembered country, but, when the Germans turn their attention to the destruction of Stalin, Solly finds himself captured and pressed into service as an interpreter.
He quickly becomes a front-line mascot and is shipped off back to Germany, to attend an exclusive school for the Hitler Youth and children of the Party faithful. Throughout the entire film he struggles to hide or deny his Jewish roots ... and, more particularly, to conceal the fact that he has been circumcised.
A film about duty and obedience, a film about identity and the struggle to preserve it ... and an ironic commentary on masculinity, for Solomon's identity is ultimately bound up in his circumcised member - it's exposure can never be a triumph of macho dominance, but a betrayal of his vulnerability. Throughout the film, Solomon does as he is told - he obeys his parents, obeys the Russians, obeys the Germans. He struggles to obey his conscience, but he is young, he is human, and he is scared out of his wits. In the face of certain death, survival becomes the driving force. Ultimately, Solly obeys the instinct to survive.
The film is delivered as a series of episodes, each culminating in a cliff-hanger situation, each situation resolved in more and more farcical fashion. Like the heroine tied to the railway tracks, salvation always seems to arrive in the knick of time ... divine intervention with a wry grin! That one Jewish teenager could survive in these circumstances is incredible, suggests the film, and exposes the myth of German efficiency. Life can be farcical (in retrospect) and far from 'efficient'.
Primo Levi writes with extraordinary humanity and honesty about what it was like to survive Auschwitz. "Europa Europa" offers another spin on this. Survival is never heroic, is never one dimensional. Solly survives by sheer terror, ingenuity, and luck, pure luck. The Holocaust is too often offered up as simple, gross statistics. Solly, here, is a terrified teenager - a single, solitary individual against whom history and Europe seem to have conspired. You can sense the feeling of guilt, the "why me" questioning of the survivor, but the answer is in the film. Luck.
A very funny film with a very serious message, it will doubtless outrage some who see it. But it is a film which should make you laugh: if Solly is a pawn in history, his story is a triumph not simply of luck and survival, but of an indomitable human spirit. Silence laughter and you silence love, understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness, for humour is at the root of the human spirit. Excellent, excellent film.