Europa Europa: Border States

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.”

“There are two new Europes—the West and the East,” Holland explained, during that first of the many times I’ve interviewed her. 

Western Europe has become very proud; they’ve forgotten that their roots are not so nice. And in the East, it’s the same thing, only they want to be more like the West. They want to be the European new order. But Europe, any Europe, never resolved the madness of the Holocaust and something larger that it was a part of—the dream of making a totalitarian state that’s more important than the individual. Of course, there’s a difference between communism and fascism. Communist ideology in some way was utopian. It was about social justice, while fascism was based in the hatred of the other and was clearly a pathology from the beginning. For nearly a century, Europe was engaged in struggle against communism.

She went on to say that the crumbling of the Soviet Union was leaving a vacuum, one that new totalitarian regimes would continue rushing to fill, an observation that would have done a Cassandra-like prophet proud but was in fact spoken by a brilliant analyst of history who makes good use of personal experience. Holland was born in Warsaw in 1948, the year that Stalinism triumphed in Poland. Her father was Jewish and had sur­vived the war by fleeing to the Soviet Union; the rest of his family died in the Warsaw ghetto. He became a reformist, anti-Stalinist journalist who, in 1961, was arrested for Zionism and espionage, two days before “falling” to his death (his family, including Holland, believe that he was pushed) from his apartment in Warsaw. Her mother, a Catholic, had worked in the Polish underground. Since Orthodox Jews believe that Jewish identity is passed through the maternal line, Holland is not for them a real Jew, while Polish anti-Semites have no difficulty discriminating against her. Holland’s sense of being in between—a target for attacks from both worlds—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; from that vantage point, she can show that the world is complex, that no one is totally good or evil, and that everyone operates from mixed motives.

In the late sixties, Holland—knowing that, as a Jew, she had no chance of being admitted to the Polish national film school in Łódź—enrolled at FAMU in Prague, where she was mentored by Miloš Forman. She has described her experience of the Prague Spring of 1968 as the most liberating of her life, but after the Soviet-led invasion and crackdown that August, she was arrested for her support of liberalization and spent over a month in a Czech prison before deciding that maybe returning to Poland would be better. She became an assistant to director Andrzej Wajda there—including (uncredited) on his Man of Marble (1977), which also features a character based on her—and wrote or cowrote half a dozen scripts for him. Despite her obvious skill and talent, the authorities refused to allow her to direct, until Wajda struck a deal for her. She told me that he agreed not to put her name on the screenplay for his Man of Marble if Holland was allowed to direct her own scripts. Of the three films that resulted from this bargain, the first two garnered her international attention: Provincial Actors (1979) won the International Critics Prize at Cannes, and Fever (1981) was a hit at the Berlin Film Festival. The last, A Woman Alone (1981), is one of the most unsparing and devastating works in the history of cinema. Holland’s critique in it is aimed at the failed communist state that, rather than nurturing social consciousness, had created conditions in which its citizens were pillaging crumbs from those who had next to nothing. She was not permitted to show that film in Poland, so it was by chance—the kind of chance that figures crucially in the survival of Europa Europa’s protagonist—that she was in Sweden when martial law was declared in Poland. She would remain in Western Europe for the next eight years, making films there (including, in West Germany, Angry Harvest, which was nominated for an Oscar) and becoming a French citizen. She returned to Poland only after the Soviet Union began to dissolve, to shoot most of Europa Europa and to record the score by Zbigniew Preisner, which is as crucial for the expressive qualities of the film as Jacek Petrycki’s cinematography.

One of the rare World War II–set films of the past few decades to be fully relevant on its release, Europa Europa is even more reflective of the dangerous instability and growing fanaticism of today’s nationalisms, ideologies, and religions. While the film is centered on Salomon (nicknamed Sally and played by Marco Hofschneider), Holland is less concerned with excavating his psyche than with mapping his journey through a Europe that refuses his existence. Europa Europa is both intimate and epic. The German-French-Polish coproduction allowed Holland for the first time the resources and a sweeping enough narrative to support her enormous technical skills and her dynamic and implicitly dialectical sense of composition, scale, rhythm, and pace. Holland anchors a big story—one that crisscrosses three countries over seven years and involves, besides Sally, at least two dozen supporting characters and several hundred extras, playing soldiers, civilians, and students—with an accumulation of precise details that speak to contradictions around character, conflict, milieu, ideology, and the desire to belong in order to survive.

The first image we see is of a boy—dressed in short pants and a military jacket with a Nazi armband—swimming underwater, attempting at one point to cling to or fight off an adult soldier as he frantically tries to reach the surface. The image encapsulates Sally’s memory of his seven-year struggle to survive the war, and we soon learn that the entire film is constructed from his memories, which accounts for the expressionism of the camera work, and for the fact that he is present in every sequence. The first thing we hear is Sally, in voice-over, saying, “I was born on April 20, 1925, in Peine, Germany, Europe, the fourth and youngest child of Azriel Perel, the owner of a shoe store, and his wife, Rebecca.” Just so that we understand how important these facts are—that the place and the date of one’s birth and who one’s parents are determine much of what we call identity (despite the fact that the vast majority of movies either ignore or homogenize these facts for the sake of a fantasy of universality)—we hear a fading echo of those first words: “I was born on April 20, 1925, in Peine, Germany, Europe.” Soon, we see through a window the crowded interior of a Jewish home, where a child is being circumcised. And in voice-over again, Sally tells us something that he says we might find unbelievable—that he remembers his own circumcision. Whether this is possible or he has observed other circumcisions and made them his own is irrelevant. The ritual that marks him for life—both placing him in mortal danger and saving his humanity—is established with remarkable narrative economy, but with great attention to sensory detail, including an image of the mohel placing a blade next to the infant’s tiny penis.

The film then jumps ahead thirteen years, to 1938. The day of Sally’s bar mitzvah coincides with Kristallnacht, and the Nazis rampage through Peine, trashing Jewish homes and businesses and attacking people in the street. The family’s only daughter, Bertha, is killed—and it could have been Sally, who was supposed to run the errand she took care of for him. From the first, Holland shows that Sally survives because of luck, because his immediate impulse when he senses danger is to take flight and hide, and because he is young and attractive to women and also to some men, all of whom project their various fantasies onto him. On his Candide-like journey across a savagely war-torn Europe, he is aided by several such figures. In Peine, it is a teenage German girl who has a crush on him. In Łódź, it is a hunchbacked woman who takes tickets at the cinema where his fantasy of life as a movie, with himself as a romantic adventurer, takes root. After he flees Łódź for the Soviet Union and lands at a boys’ school there, it is a middle-aged teacher who tries to protect him. When he becomes a member of the occupying German army battling the Russians in Poland, his secret, discovered during an attempted seduction, is guarded by a gay former actor, who replies to Sally’s question about whether it’s hard to play a character with “It’s harder to play yourself.” And in Berlin, the mother of the teenage Hitler fanatic who has stolen his heart (Julie Delpy) knows Sally’s secret but, like the actor, does not betray him. Setting aside the bravura battle scenes and the grotesquely hilarious dream sequences, the brilliance of Europa Europa is in the casting of Hofschneider, an inexperienced twenty-year-old actor, as Sally, and in the work that Holland does with him to show that the character intuitively understands that his survival in part depends on his allowing those around him to believe anything that suits their fantasies about themselves.

In the United States, Europa Europa was both a box-office and a critical success. It was given the best foreign-language film award by the Golden Globes and by several film critics’ organizations, including the New York Film Critics Circle. In response to the failure of Germany to submit it for consideration for a foreign-language-film Oscar nomination, as West Germany had for Angry Harvest, the Academy found another way to honor the film: by including it in the best screenwriting category. But in Europe, the hostility came from all sides. Holland was accused of anti-Semitism for treating the Holocaust as a comedy, and of Zionism because, at the end of the film, she shows the real Salomon Perel living in Israel, without a sign of discontent. Many German critics also claimed that the film was disgusting, a charge frequently made against Holland for showing the mortal body, alive, dying, or dead, without prettification. In Europa Europa’s most disturbing sequence, Sally, in his Hitler Youth uniform, looks for his parents, riding a streetcar through the Łódź ghetto that was their last known address. The tram windows are blacked out, and the good Germans and Poles who ride from one side of town to the other show no interest in what is happening outside them. But Sally scratches the covering off a small bit of glass and sees, through this frame, bodies piled in the street, while the emaciated living sit or stagger to and fro. It is the only scene of horror that Holland refuses to inflect with black humor. 

In 1991, I suspected that what upset the European film establishment was that a director who was born Polish, Jewish, and female had made a mockery not of the Holocaust but of European nationalism and the ideologies of both the left and the right—not to mention her lack of reverence for penises in general. Holland said she took the attacks as proof that these issues were far from settled. The next nearly thirty years have proved her correct. Nor has anything been settled for her. In 2011, she would return to the Holocaust in another great film, In Darkness, and she would treat the failure of democracy in Poland and in other former Eastern Bloc countries in several films and television series, including her twenty-first-century masterpiece Spoor (2017), which depicts a middle-aged woman’s struggle against the corruption and cruelty of the Polish authoritarian, patriarchal state, in decline but refusing to give up its power. Like Europa Europa, Spoor ends with a glimmer of hope, because, as Holland has explained, unless people have hope, they will be unable to imagine the future or act at all.