Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa recounts the incredible but true story of how Salomon Perel, born in 1925 in Germany to a Polish Jewish family, survived the Holocaust by posing as a pure Aryan German raised in Poland. Recruited by the Wehrmacht as a Russian-German translator, he won the fatherly affections of a member of the Nazi high command, who arranged for him to finish his education at an elite military school for Hitler Youth in Berlin. As Holland shows us, although he is willing to deny his identity in order to survive—and out of an adolescent desire to fit in—Salomon, who has renamed himself Josef, cannot ignore the evidence of his circumcision, which he, daily and with increasing desperation, tries to hide. “His penis saved his soul,” Holland remarked when I interviewed her in 1991, shortly after the film’s United States release. “Otherwise, he might have become a total Nazi.” It is this unflinching view of how we become the persons we are that makes Europa Europa a radical film, and one of the many great and necessary works of Holland’s career.
After the war, Perel emigrated to Israel, where he married and had four sons, all of whom were circumcised. He never denied his Jewish identity again. But it wasn’t until he had lived in Israel for forty years that he wrote his survival story. Holland has said that she decided to adapt it after seeing an article about Perel in a German newspaper and then reading the first twenty pages of his autobiography, which would be published in both German and French (the latter under the title Europa Europa). She had already made four features, one of which, Angry Harvest (1985), is a virtual two-hander between a Polish Catholic farmer and a wealthy Austrian Jewish woman, whom the farmer shelters after she jumps from a transport bound for a death camp. Emotionally harrowing, Angry Harvest is a brilliant psychological and religious exploration of anti-Semitism, a subject Holland knows firsthand. But she saw in Perel’s story a different way of approaching the Holocaust and twentieth-century European history, one that would allow her to bring to bear her dark humor and sense of the absurd.
“Holland’s sense of being in between has made her resistant to dogma and party lines. Rather than begging for acceptance, she has put her outsider position to good use in her films.”
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