Europa Europa (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events experienced by Solomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider) in World War II, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, was about the teenager’s plight in taking many identities in hopes of surviving and being reunited with his family. Solomon was Jewish but he had Aryan features. He also knew multiple languages which proved to be an advantage when he was separated from his brother (René Hofschneider) while trying to escape from both the Russians and the Germans. Initially, he ended up in a communist orphanage, then the battlefield, up until he joined the Hitler Youth where he was trained to hate his kind and those that didn’t belong in the “elite race.” Watching this picture was quite an experience because it was probably the first movie I’ve seen where I was taken in a Hitler Youth classroom and had a chance to observe how the brainwashing worked. It was maddening but at the same time fascinating because of the way the Nazis shaped a small fear and applied that fear to every aspect that they believed wasn’t worthy. I also got to see how that fear turned into anger and anger into hatred. I hated how the teachers used so-called science to justify who, essentially, deserved to die. For instance, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when Solomon (now named Josef Peters) was called in front of the classroom and his head was measured from various angles and how far apart his features were from one another. When the film focused on the details, it was at its best because I couldn’t stop thinking about small elements afterwards. Furthermore, I’m glad that the film didn’t paint all Germans as monsters. In each location he ended up in, our protagonist met at least one person who made a difference in his life. One was a closeted gay soldier (André Wilms) who had a crush on Solomon and eventually found out that Solomon was Jewish but didn’t turn him in. Another was a mother (Halina Labonarska) of girl Solomon really liked who was stuck with a daughter (Julie Delpy) so consumed with hatred and trying to impress her leader. In a way, those two also had to hide who they really were and how they felt about the Nazi occupation. However, the film’s first half verged on heavy-handedness. It needed to trim some scenes because we all know that the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in history. What the movie should have done was immediately focus on Solomon’s personal journey and less generalizations. Nevertheless, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” also known as “Hitler Youth Salomon” and “Europa Europa,” had a strong sense of momentum once it found its footing. The scene that summed up the film best was when Solomon sat in a comfortable Nazi vehicle, peered through a heavily stained window and saw the horrible things that happened to his people. He saw the dead and wondered whether his family was there. Solomon had to stop himself from breaking down because he might be caught as a sympathizer, or worse, a Jew.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.
La haine (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“La haine” stars Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as a Jew, an African and an Arab, respectively, who come from the nonglamorous side of Parisian neighborhood. The premise of the film was essentially following the three characters in a span of a day–after a riot in which one of their friends was sent to the hospital–so we could see how they juggled the internal and external violence that faced them. I was impressed with this film because it dealt with the characters in painfully realistic ways without being too heavy-handed or a stereotypical “being in one’s shoes for a day” story. The three friends were so angry to the point where they couldn’t help but stir trouble wherever they ended up. Their personalities were explosive and unpredictable but just when we thought we had them all figured out, the material surprised us. It then begged the question of whether they could rise above the place where they came from; I could see that they wanted to change and that they were tired of having to be (or trying to be) tough all the time. It was the subtle scenes in which the characters expressed their concerns and sadness about where their lives were heading that gripped me until the very intense and memorable final scene. Even though there were a lot of meaningless fights and funny scenes at someone’s expense, I enjoyed the quiet moments when they would just sit on the train and not talk to each other or when they would just visit an empty shopping mall in the middle of the night. As alienated as they were, their frustrations didn’t hinder them from trying to live even if the paths they’ve chosen were roads that we necessarily would not want for them to take. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, he really had a knack for playing with the camera and delivering unique shots when something crucial was unfolding before our (and the characters’) eyes. He wasn’t afraid to take some risks and they paid off handsomely; the decision to shoot the film in simple black and white complemented the complex social problems (that we sometimes see in black and white) that the picture tackled head-on. Ultimately a movie about acceptance and corruption, “La haine,” also known as “Hate,” showed that a material does not need to be obvious or touching for it to teach a lesson about urban life. In some ways, the tone and focus somewhat reminded me of the unforgettable “Trainspotting,” only “La haine” was far less manic and more serious in its approach.
The Pianist (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★
You can say a lot of things about Roman Polanski since his personal life is often torn apart among the tabloids but you cannot deny that the man knows how to make movies. Not just typical movies that happen to be commercially successful, but movies that are personal, have artistic merit and have distinct emotional resonance. In “The Pianist,” Polanski focused on the survival story of a Polish Jewish survivor named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in Warsaw in the middle of World War II. I thought it was interesting how the picture started off with him and his family (Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay as his parents, Jessica Kate Meyer and Julia Rayner as his sisters, and Ed Stoppard as his brother) and then shift the focus on how he was able to survive on his own with the help of kind strangers and adoring fans (Emilia Fox). Even though this was set in WWII, I thought it felt a little different because we spent the majority of the time observing him from indoors–how he saw the war from his window somewhat from an outsider’s perspective yet still caught up in the middle of it. We also observed how he moved from one place to another and the dangers (and repercussions) of certain decisions he had to make in order to subsist. Back when I saw this this film for the first time in 2002, I did not understand what was so special about a man trying to hide in an apartment instead of joining his comrades to fight against the Nazis. But seeing this movie seven years later, I thought that Szpilman’s experiences were really painful because he had to live with the guilt of surviving as his friends and family were murdered. Yet at the same time, it took a lot of courage for him to want to keep living despite the fact that there were times when he caught serious diseases, hasn’t eaten for days on end, and how the lack of company almost drove him into madness. I was really touched whenever he would play the piano after hiding for so long; it was kind of like watching a man coming back from the dead. I thought it expertly embodied the idea of music being an elixir of life. My favorite scene was toward the end when he played the piano for the Nazi that chose to help him (Thomas Kretschmann). I would never forget that scene because I felt like a lot of things were communicated between them even though they weren’t engaged in a conversation. With such great acting from everyone involved in this film, “The Pianist” was an emotional experience I can only try to describe. I believe everyone should see it at least once because the many layers are worth exploring. It was melancholy, suspenseful, dark yet it was sensitive and truly remarkable.
A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This film was told in the eyes of an eight-year-old boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) who likes to explore his surroundings and play with other children. One day, his family decides to move from Berlin to a remote place in Poland because his father (David Thewlis) is a Nazi soldier and he is promoted there by the higher ranks. Bruno, being unaware of the horrors that the Jews are going through, assumes that the concentration camp that he can see from his bedroom is a farm. He also takes notice of the people there and tells his mother (Vera Farmiga) that he thinks they are quite strange because they wear pajamas all day. As a young explorer, he eventually visits the concentration camp and meets another eight-year-old boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) and the two become friends. I liked that this picture was told from the eyes of young person who didn’t know anything about what was going on around him. While his mistaken assumptions were amusing at times, it was very sad in its core because little by little his innocence got stripped away. I liked the scenes when the private tutor would teach Bruno and his sister (Amber Beattie) how to think like Nazi and labeled Jewish people as “evil” (among other things). Such scenes showed two crucial reactions from the children: the sister’s total acceptance of the Nazi ways to the point where she started putting up clippings and posters on her wall; and Bruno’s as he tried to resist what he was being told by asking questions such as if there were nice Jewish people. Since this was aimed as a children’s story, it was important for me to see how Bruno processed the varying information that was being presented to him by his strict Nazi father, his mother who was having a breakdown after finding out a secret that her husband kept from her, his patriotic but ultimately deluded sister, and his Jewish friend who was clearly miserable. And I did see and feel his confusion and frustration about what people have told him and his own experiences. As for the ending, it completely took me by surprise. But I suppose the director (Mark Herman) did a good job building up the tension that led to the conclusion. This film provided a nice change from other Holocaust pictures. If the fact that all of the characters spoke in English instead of German does not bother you, this is a pretty good find.