Jacek Eisner, the young hero of "War and Love" (citywide), seems to have many more lives than a cat in his determination to survive, first, the Warsaw ghetto, then Auschwitz. If only this handsome, deeply felt film had some of that life itself.
"War and Love" suffers the fatal curse of the hybrid film. It was shot on an epic scale with great care in authentic locales in Poland and Hungary--but in English with two young American newcomers in the leads and other Americans in key supporting roles.
The result gives a nagging aura of artificiality to a wrenching story of young love set against a time of incalculable suffering, turmoil and tragedy. Too often the film must rely upon the inherent power of its material, because the combination of Abby Mann's flat, uninspired dialogue and the pomposity of 19-year-old Sebastian Keneas as Jacek is absolutely lethal (but even the most experienced actor might have trouble spitting out "Anti-Semite! Cabbage head!" as he slashes a Nazi officer's throat).
Whenever you're able to stop listening to what's being said, you can sense what "War and Love" might have been, for it's been skillfully constructed by Mann from Eisner's 1980 autobiographical "The Survivor" and has been gracefully, though rather impersonally, directed by "Madame Rosa's" Moishe Mizrahi.
In the summer of 1939 Jacek Eisner was a happy teen-ager, a member of a large and prominent Jewish family in Warsaw. He was experiencing the pangs of first love, smitten by the demurely beautiful Halina (Kyra Sedgwick, who has the advantage of considerably more acting experience than Keneas). Then comes the bombing of Warsaw, followed by the German Occupation which promptly seals off the city's half-million Jews into an area normally occupied by 100,000 people. Starvation or deportation awaited those who weren't summarily shot down.
Jacek and his friends resisted the despair and resignation that threatened to overcome their parents and grandparents. The more the Nazis oppressed them, the more resourceful the teen-agers became, devising daring schemes to leave and re-enter the ghetto and smuggle in food.
While "War and Love" is in no way critical of the elders, it leaves us feeling that the kids in their bold defiance of the Nazis actually held greater promise of survival. By the same token, it doesn't discount the role that sheer luck--or divine providence, depending upon your point of view--plays in Jacek's own survival.
Obviously, "War and Love" (rated PG-13 because of extensive depiction of brutality and bloodshed) was made in English to attract wider audiences. But how valid is this notion anyway? It would seem that those concerned with Holocaust themes would see the film regardless of language. And film lovers, on the other hand, would prize a fine foreign-language film much more than this version, which suffers from a lack of strong identity, seeming neither European or American.