Who was my friend? Who was my enemy?
How could they be kind to me and at the same time
kill others so horribly? What set us apart? A simple foreskin?
– Solly Perel in Europa, Europa

Among the many extraordinary stories of survival to come out of World War II, few are as unlikely as that of Salomon (Solly) Perel. Born into a Polish-Jewish family, Solly spent three years in a Soviet orphanage then posed as an ethnic German, becoming a translator for the Wehrmacht. He was then adopted by a wealthy Nazi captain and his wife and sent to the most prestigious Hitler Youth school in Germany where he continued his masquerade, all the while living in mortal fear of the Nazis discovering his true ethnicity. Solly told his incredible story in his autobiography Europa Europa, made into a film by Agnieszka Holland shortly after its publication (1).

The film was shot largely in Poland at a time when Communist rule was coming to an end and it saw Holland return to her native country for the first time in eight years (2). The director had been a prominent figure in the “cinema of moral unrest” along with Krzysztof Kieslowski and her early feature Kobieta Samotna (A Woman Alone, 1981) was hailed as a clear-sighted portrayal of Polish womanhood.

Europa Europa is one of several films to focus on youth in Nazi-occupied Europe – other notable titles include Jan Nemec’s Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) and Elem Klimov’s Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985) – but the film it perhaps resembles most is Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974). Like Malle’s film, Europa Europa is about the yearning to belong and the complex moral choices thrust prematurely on the young by the war. Both are – above all – films about identity. Janet Lungstrum has pointed out that “[Europa Europa backgrounds] the Shoah within a foregrounded comedy of male teenage sexual awakening and exploration” (3), and it is this unconventional approach to Holocaust thematics that led to criticisms in Germany where Steven Spielberg’s more unambiguous Schindler’s List (1993) was lauded as “the ‘work of mourning’ (Trauerarbeit) that [the Germans] were unable – or unwilling to produce themselves” (4).

In Europa Europa, Solly (Marco Hofschneider) is forced to hide his Jewishness to survive. The one thing that will definitively give him away is his circumcised penis and he is justifiably terrified of anyone glimpsing it (in one uncomfortable scene, he even attempts to “uncircumcise” himself). Holland has gone so far as to say that Solly’s penis “saves his soul”, providing as it does, a constant reminder of his roots (5). During his time with the Wehrmacht, he is befriended by Kellerman (André Wilms), a homosexual German soldier who tells Solly he had been an actor before the war. “Is it hard to play someone else?” the boy asks him. Kellerman replies – significantly – that it’s much easier than playing yourself. During an attempted seduction, Kellerman becomes the first person to uncover Solly’s true identity. Catastophe is averted however, when he agrees not to inform his superiors. This episode perfectly illustrates how Solly’s survival, rather than depending on any great skill, often depends on pure chance. The fact that he somehow manages to hold out through the harrowing dislocation of war is one of the incredible ironies of the film.

Although Europa Europa’s blackly comic tone might seem to set it apart from Diamonds of the Night or Come and See, it does share several formal traits with these earlier films such as the puncturing of linear narrative progression with dream/fantasy sequences. Two scenes in particular provide glimpses into Solly’s confused psyche. The first dream sequence, occurring shortly after he has joined up with the Wehrmacht as a Russian-German translator, takes place inside a church where Hitler and Stalin are shown gleefully dancing together to a light piano arrangement of “Deutschland über Alles” – an ironic, absurdist image which attracted considerable controversy in both Germany and Poland despite being taken from dreams remembered by the real Solly. The second scene sees Solly’s family sitting around the dinner table during Passover. They are shown eating Beitzah (hard-boiled egg) dipped in saltwater, the first course in the Passover Seder and a symbol of mourning. Solly is then led by his dead sister Berta (Marta Sandrowicz) to a hiding place where he finds the figure of Hitler again, this time covering his crotch. As Lungstrum notes: “This dream-sequence constitutes, perhaps, Solly’s most serious crisis of ethnic and sexual consciousness […] and as a result of its images he decides to travel to Łódź in an attempt to regain contact with his parents in the ghetto.” (6)

Solly, still in his Nazi guise, takes several tram rides through the Łódź ghetto. Holland refrains from wide shots, keeping firmly within Solly’s point-of-view as he peers through gaps in the blocked-out windows looking for signs of his family among the many emaciated, condemned ghetto dwellers.

Although criticised for its unconventional approach to representing the Holocaust, Holland’s Europa Europa remains a key work of 1990s cinema. While certainly less well-known than Schindler’s List or La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni 1997) – the film succeeds in capturing a sense of the moral complexity, even the absurdity of wartime through the eyes of its teenage protagonist.

Endnotes

  1. Originally published in 1990 by Editions Ramsay as Europa Europa. It was published in German in 1992 as Ich war Hitlerjugend Salomon.
  2. Her pro-Solidarity stance forced her to emigrate once martial law was imposed in Poland.
  3. Janet Lungstrum, “Foreskin Fetishism: Jewish Male Difference in Europa, Europa”, Screen vol. 39, no. 1, Spring 1998, p. 54. Similarly, in his Chicago Reader review of Europa Europa from 8October 1991, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that the film reformulates “the existential view of the Holocaust offered by Shoah more in terms of black comedy than tragedy […with] identities seem[ing] as mutable and as deceptive as uniforms”. See Rosenbaum, “What is a Jew?”, JonathanRosenbaum.com: www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7287.
  4. Lungstrum, p. 54.
  5. See Holland’s audio commentary for Europa Europa included on its Arrow Video DVD release, United Kingdom, 2008.
  6. Lungstrum, p. 63.

Europa Europa (1990 Germany/France/Poland 112 mins)

Prod Co: Central Cinema Company Film (CCC)/Les Films du Losange Prod: Artur Brauner, Margaret Ménégoz Dir: Agnieszka Holland Scr: Agnieszka Holland, based on Solomon Perel’s book Phot: Jacek Petrycki Ed: Isabelle Lorente, Ewa Smal Prod Des: Allan Starski Mus: Zbigniew Preisner

Cast: Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, René Hofschneider, Piotr Kozlowski, André Wilms, Ashley Wanninger

About The Author

Pasquale Iannone teaches film at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a writer and broadcaster, contributing regularly to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme and BBC Radio Scotland’s The Movie Café.