Saturday, July 21, 2007
Europa Europa - The Parameters of Identity
Any film about Jews during the Second World War is ultimately bound to be a film about that darkest period of humanity’s inhumanity in the modern world--- the Holocaust. One may argue that ‘Europa, Europa’ is not really a film about the Holocaust because the main character, Solomon Perel(or Josef Peters) did not really experience the horrors of the Holocaust, but it most certainly is. Just as cinema is a series of pictures interspersed with a series of darkness, so is the film’s narrative not just about what is being shown but is also about what is not being shown.
As we watch Solly’s life unfold, we become acutely aware that it is unfolding in front of a curtain of unspeakable horror. The uneasiness grows in us, and it’s more unsettling than dealing with the graphic horrors of the Holocaust. The feeling is like watching Vivien Leigh in the shower in ‘Psycho’ and we start to say, “Hey, we like this!”, but we say it in a tentative, tremulous voice, knowing that Norman Bates is just behind the curtain ready to hack away at a moment’s notice.
Of course, the attack did not come. But the anticipation made us watch the entire film. Horror without the blood and gore is no less horrifying. A Holocaust film without a holocaust scene is no less terrifying.
But before I delve further in the film’s narrative, I wish to deal with the film ‘Europa, Europa’ as a commodity. In other words, how the film was made to be sold.
It was a film made after an autobiography by Solomon Perel started getting attention. Of course, the “hook” was: how could a Jew fool Germans by pretending to be an Aryan. The public lapped it up and the film, like so many before it, was made to make hay out of that public curiosity. As in the case of many biopics, some details of Perel’s life was glossed over or highlighted to create narrative tension and structure. Also, there are characters in this film such as the strong-willed, independent woman (like Leni who does not tolerate being physically hurt) or a homosexual soldier which I believe wouldn’t have been included or portrayed as such if this film was made in an earlier, more conservative era. I am pointing this out to underscore the fact that a film is a not just an artistic product but also a cultural product. Our appreciation of the film must never forget the cultural context that spawned it. Furthermore, the inclusion of such characters may have a financial motive. As women and homosexuals have asserted themselves as viable and ardent consumers of commodities (including films) in the early 1990’s, therefore there must have been a conscious effort by the film-makers not to gloss over those types of characters in order for the film to appeal to those specific target demographics. Then there is also the change in the title from “Hitlerjunge Salomon” or “Hitler’s Youth Solomon” to “Europa, Europa” which I believe was also made due to a marketing strategy. The distributors wanted to avoid the name “Hitler” which could alienate potential buyers through negative association with that name, and also perhaps to ride on the rising popularity of up-and-coming enfant terrible director Lars von Trier who made a film called Europa also on the same year.
Nevertheless, Europa is an effective film for political socialization, like other more celebrated Holocaust films like ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘The Pianist’ or ‘Fateless’, perhaps more. Holland, Europa’s director, dealt with the main character not as sympathetically as one might expect from a political film. She did not highlight Perel’s virtues or subdued his faults--- she depicted him as mere human--- able to dream, to doubt, to lie and to fall flat on his face. There was a hint of irony running through the film that makes us somehow alternately disdainful and sympathetic to the travails of the main character. The character then morphs into a puppet in the Japanese (or Indonesian) theatre: we may laugh or cry at what it does but the puppetmaster does not try to hide his face in the shadows---because he is the show and not the puppet.
The most moving scene in the movie for me was when Solly saw the true plight of his fellow Jews as he traversed through the ghettoes riding in a white washed tram. Vicariously, we saw the deplorable state of Jews through a small opening in the window. The film has insulated us, has insulated Solly Perel by making us ride in the tram but the reality, we learn, is outside the window and our collective heart bleeds because we cannot do anything about it.
The scene may have no sound or music for all I care but the images have seared my soul. It may not tell us outright like any conventional political film to stop Holocaust from happening again but it has telegraphed that much more powerfully.
The unspoken speaks volumes.
- A. Abeleda
Life as a fraction of it … Set during the onset of World War II in Europe, Europa Europa (originally titled Hitlerjugen Salomon in its European release) is a period film revolving around the story of Solomon Perel, a handsome man of Jewish origins who, by the consequences of the ongoing war, came to be part of the German Army whose main purpose is to follow Hitler’s ultimate goal of liberating Europe from Jewish settlement. The film stars Marco Hofschneider who plays Solly, and Solomon Perel who played a very short but memorable part in the film as himself. It was directed by award-winning European director Agnieszka Holland (who a also directed Secret Garden in 1993) and debuted in 1990.
Solly’s story, like most of ours, are full of trials and triumphs, most of which we sometimes deal with great sensitivity. Throughout his journey, we find that his story reflects one of the most interesting facets of the self in relation to his surroundings: his notion of who he is, who are his friends, who are his enemies. As for every one of us, he has traveled through life in search of his identity. But how did he come to know who he is? I believe it is by how he was brought up, how he lived up to it, and what he has gone through that he had the power to acknowledge who he really is.
Narrating his life in diary-entry fashion, Solly relates what he has been through more closely to the audience, capturing a more intimate relation that seems to penetrate the distance between the film and the real world, which I believe effectively socializes the people watching the film. The point of view employed in the film (first person) may seem to be biased towards the protagonist; nonetheless, it is worth noting that the film is a response to Perel’s autobiography, thus justifying the subsequent scenes shown in the film. There were many notable narrations in the film that carries with it very profound significance, like when he starts the film by introducing himself as someone whose birthday falls on the same day as Hitler’s, and how he said that he unbelievably remembers the day of his circumcision.
By the thematic focus of the film, it is very evident of the political content within it. However, it is through the employment of the situation of war that the discussion on identity is successfully brought up to the consciousness of its viewers. Almost the world over have recognized the inhumane sufferings the Jews have to endure during Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany, and his ultimate dream of Aryan world domination. Bringing a Jew’s story in the midst of this dilemma most certainly made the story an account of finding yourself from the grotesque situations of ultimate human wickedness. It is very evident in the film of the times when Solomon just wants to be who he really is, for instance, after his friend Robert and other soldiers were killed, he wanted to desert his troop, but his action backfired and was embedded more deeply into the German ideals. But the situation forced him to be drowned, to the point that he pulls his foreskin back just to fit in and avoid being mutilated, charred or triggered to death. Thus, we can say that the setting of the film greatly supports the discourse on how socialization affects an individual’s perception on who he was. Remember the scene where there were two children who were hung outside their house and Solomon was made to believe that their race was the one who killed the Germans, and now its payback time, so he fired to them and burned their home? He was confused then, how could he be so loved, but other people whom he share the same lineage, was atrociously murdered? In effect, he is asking, what will I choose? Live as who I was when I was born and circumcised, or pretend to be someone else to save my life, my future?
This brings us to the importance of socializing factors in the establishment of our identity. The Germans have built theirs, an extreme form of ethnocentrism employing ethnic cleansing by the belief of their superiority. The Jews also have built their own, based on their traditions and customs. These foundations were put together through the ways and processes that surround them, and in return internalize them so that they may appear to be just and normal. In this case, both groups were oriented in different manners, thus resulting to a cleavage that will bring about conflict. Socialization, thus, is a significant factor of building identity.
In my interpretation of the film, there are also other issues that contribute on the discourse on identity, but these do not deviate outside the context of socialization. They also strengthen the point that identity succeeds socialization. During the film viewing, I overheard someone exclaiming something about racism. It is most certainly true, and I think this is self explanatory. Someone mentioned of gender discrimination, like when the class reacted quite negatively on the scene where Robert tries to do something sexual to Solly while he was bathing. It is also true, indeed. Racism and gender discrimination are two main issues that still flood the global community up to now, but more implicitly that before. For example, homosexuals nowadays live in a world of mocking and degradation of dignity, thus experiencing socialization that impinges on their acceptance of the self, making them unproductive and oftentimes looked-down members of the society. Same goes to the issues of racial discrimination. Many people have wished they were Americans so that they do not live off a dollar a day, or wished they were tan and had blue eyes to make it to Hollywood, putting to backdrop their own cultures and ways from which they were raised.
Has the film succeeded in being an effective medium of trying to encapsulate these issues and prescribing them to the viewers? Most certainly, I should say. While watching the film, and more so after, I tried to ask the very same question that lingers throughout the film, a simple inquiry that bears a very complex response: Sino ba talaga ako? Do I really know myself? How have the things I experienced molded me into who I am now, how others think of me and how I think of my very self? Surely, some would relatively find the question easy, if not so ridiculous for anyone to ask. But really, do I know myself? How confident am I that the I that I know is really me? The actualization of the self, which can be characterized by our ability to answer these questions, is an important component of building our own identity.
Leo Tolstoy once said, “A person is like a fraction, whose numerator is what he is and the denominator is what he thinks of himself , the larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.” In the film, Solly was engulfed by the ways of the Germans, to the point were he seemed to forgot his culture, his God, and thought of himself as a true blooded Aryan. In the process, he learned to hate, but in the end he slowly felt that hiding in the shadows does not make him more of a person, but less of it. It is hard to play someone else, but it is harder to play oneself, so says Robert. True enough, identifying your identity depends upon the acceptance of the norms by an individual, how he internalizes it, and how he processes it to be morally upright according to his beliefs. Identity, then, is not just a matter of fitting in; it is also a matter of living out. As Solomon Perel and his journey, the true measure of knowing oneself is finding what is always in your heart to be true and acceptable.
To close, let me share with you one of my most favorite scenes in the film, where, after Solly found his brother Isaak in the concentration camp, they peed together in an open foyer, with the lights on them, without any hesitation.
- M. Delas Alas