Europa, Europa (Germany/France/Poland, 1990) You have to be reminded of The Pianist, the 2002 film by Roman Polanski. That was the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who, with a great deal of dumb luck, managed to survive the Holocaust without ever being sent to an extermination camp, largely by living like a cockroach in the walls and crawlspaces, to the extent that he was barely human at the end of his ordeal. Europa, Europa is the true story of Solomon Perel, a much younger man who also survived, with even more dumb luck.
By dumb, I don’t mean that either man was stupid. I mean that they were the playthings of fate, like leaves drifting along in the gutter toward the sewer. Some will survive, but most won’t. And there is almost nothing they can do about it. Polanski’s is the better film, because it dares to show the claustrophobia, helplessness, and just plain day-to-day boredom of being in hiding, totally dependent on the few honest Christians of the underground. Europa is more a “Perils of Pauline” thing, a bit melodramatic, with a lot of narrow, last-minute escapes. Solomon uses his wits as best he can, but he, too, is largely helpless.
His moral dilemma is far greater, however. He begins as a Jew in Germany. When his house is invaded and his sister killed, he flees naked from the bathroom, and is forced to wear a Nazi coat complete with swastika to return home. Then he and his family flee to Poland, then he flees to Russia. For a while he is a good communist. Hey, he’s 15, what does he know? He learns to be a chameleon, so that when the Germans invade he quickly becomes a Nazi, a Hitler-Jugend, at an exclusive school in Berlin. But he can never really be Aryan, because of that tiny bit of skin he lacks and which he must go to great lengths to conceal. (It’s odd. I know it’s that way in Europe, but in Texas, where I grew up, over 90% of the boys I saw in the locker room were circumcised, and we didn’t have any Jews in that school.) And that pales, really, in comparison to the self-loathing he begins to feel. Who am I? What am I? I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s best book, Mother Night, in which a racist radio broadcaster is actually a spy for the Americans … but does his racist job so well even his handlers don’t trust him … and he doesn’t even really trust himself. Moral of the story: We must be careful what we pretend to be, because we may become what we pretend.