One staggeringly eloquent witness can anchor a documentary as securely as any star performance in a feature.
It happened with Norman Mailer in that paean to Muhammad Ali, "When We Were Kings"; Mailer's memories heightened and elucidated the impact of every Ali bob and jab, in and out of the ring. It happens again with Lore Segal in "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport." She brings an incandescent intelligence to this sensitive chronicle of the 10,000 Jewish and other children Great Britain accepted when the Nazis agreed to let them flee Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Segal, author of "My First American" and "Other People's Houses" (a fictional treatment of her wartime experience), articulates the difficulty and glory of Britain's unique charitable venture with diamond-hard clarity.
She compares the way she and her fellow refugees behaved in their new environment to birds with broken wings in human palms: They struggled reflexively and awkwardly rather than relaxing into the care of their rescuers. Although she says that none of the five families she stayed with "could stand me for very long," she notes that each of them "had the grace to take in a Jewish child."
"Into the Arms of Strangers," winner of this year's best documentary Oscar, is a marvelous picture and a highly unusual journey in and around the Holocaust. Following (for the most part) rescued children allows the writer-director, Mark Jonathan Harris, to examine not just the extreme cruelties of the Nazi scourge but also, more gently, its disruption of simple normality.
The Holocaust here is both an apocalypse and an emotional magnifying glass: It renders precious every point of contact between parents and children, children and siblings.
Young viewers will connect immediately to this movie's subtle revelations, such as the way kids memorize their parents' faces or have their features burned into them, or how kids respond to an adult's stoicism with relief - and to an adult's spontaneous outbursts with fear. Grown-ups will rediscover the valiance and ebullience of youth.
When trains carrying carloads of Britain-bound children cross the border from Germany to Holland, the boys and girls erupt in song. In the snapshots of their freedom ride their faces are ecstatic, with a love of liberty that seems holy and innate.
Even though Segal didn't understand the words to what were probably Zionist songs, she says she couldn't help joining in and trilling, "la-la-la."
Harris' close hold on his subject allows him to suggest why Jews felt comfortable in Germany before Hitler rose to power and then were hesitant to leave. He starts the movie with an evocation of the German childhood shared by Jews and Gentiles alike - including storybooks like "Till Eulenspiegel" and German, not Yiddish, kids' songs on the soundtrack.
It's the unity of this youth culture that makes it so painful for the children when the attacks on Jews escalate and they're sent to separate schools.
As Segal notes, it was difficult to gather all the paperwork needed to escape the Nazis, and to find a country that would welcome Jews and other persecuted groups.
England took 10,000 children. And Harris is able to trace the full circle they traveled. The children break from their parents, and greet new guardians. By and large, the young refugees assimilate, and then must confront either the pain of family loss or, far more rarely, the confusion of reunion.
And now, in the fullness of their lives, they summon up their lost childhoods and struggle with how their traumas formed them. If I single Segal out, it's only because, as a novelist, she has refined her thoughts and feelings. But the others are just as cogent in their partial observations. All are eloquent and piercing as they wrestle with the evolution of their own identities.
Those who don't follow any general pattern prove to be as revealing as those who do. In a moment more trenchant and ambiguous in its impact than the climax of "Sophie's Choice," Lory Cahn recalls how her father, at the last minute, couldn't bear parting from her; he pulled her out of the open train window. She ended up at Auschwitz.
Yet the movie makes no easy judgments. As if to contradict Cahn's doleful narrative, someone saved by the Kindertransport says that he and his close friends vowed to keep their own children with them, always - or at least to send their children to each other, not to strangers.
Fresh and vivid in its particulars, this supremely empathic movie makes its Baltimore premiere today, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Into the Arms of Strangers" says better than any sermon why all people should honor its observance.
`Into the Arms of Strangers'
Directed by Mark Jonathan Harris
Released by Warner Bros.
Running time 118 minutes
Sun score ****