"Europa, Europa" argues that it is better to live on one's knees than to die on one's knees.
Put another way, it postulates that heroic action, that mainstay of the Western imagination since Homer, is a sentimental luxury in a world dedicated to the destruction of an entire culture. It further maintains, with Lear, that ripeness is all and that death always sucks. Agnieszka Holland's great film, which opens today at the Charles, follows a young German Jew who, through fantastic good fortune and not a few kernels of inspired thespianism, managed to survive the Holocaust by hiding in the very belly of the beast itself.
Yet the film stops far short of apotheosizing Solomon Perel, whose method of survival was something less than Homeric: It was to drop instantly to his knees and begin to lick the boots of his oppressors. He did a lot of licking and it paid off big: He's still breathing. But most viewers will come away from this convincing and provocative account of his adventures with a trace of ambivalence.
Solomon, played brilliantly by the handsome and winning Marco Hofschneider, was a gifted lickspittle. His stock in trade was denying his self so pungently that he convinced all about him that he was the diametric opposite of what he was. In the seven horrid years of the war, he was by turns an ardent Soviet communist (when captured by the Russians), a German soldier (when captured by the Germans), a stout young Nazi goon mingling with the cream of the Herrenvolk thuggee cult (when sent to what appears to be the Andover of National Socialism), and, always, a deserter. He deserted at least three times, from two different armies, always currying favor with his captors with the oleaginous glee of a gifted sychophant.
Perhaps what makes this hard to swallow was his complete absence of irony and cynicism. It's not as if he had been playing a game against these guys, bringing off a grand impersonation, taking some pleasure in revealing the fraudulence of their insane theology. He was too much a method actor for that: Instead, he seemingly became what he had to become, and one suspects that the fervency of his transformation was what got him through the many nights.
His survival was also to some degree a phenomenon of mathematical improbability -- after all, someone has to win the lottery each time -- and turned on absurd twists. Caught up by the German security system, he had just left the police station which was beginning the investigation that would doom him when it was bombed; again, about to be executed as a war criminal by other Jews, he was saved when his one surviving brother identified him.
Yet it's hard to exult in his triumph, which seems less than a triumph of the spirit than the triumph of one very lucky weasel. The film cannot offer a single shred of evidence that throughout his travails he did one thing, no matter how small or pointlessly symbolic, to subvert the cause of the men who were in the process of murdering 6 million of his relatives, including his parents and two of his siblings.
When he heard the bell toll, he did not send to know for whom it tolled, because he already knew: It tolled for anybody but him.
Starring Marco Hofschneider.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland.
Released by Orion Classics.