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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Europa Europa’: True Tale of Holocaust Survival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Solomon Perel grew up in Germany as the fourth child in a Jewish family. The first moments of “Europa Europa"--Agnieszka Holland’s gruesomely comic movie set between 1938 and 1945 and based on Perel’s autobiography--recount the boy’s circumcision, an event he claims to remember. (It opens today at the Park.)

Certainly as his story develops, his circumcision becomes the one defining, unalterable event in his life. No matter how hard he tries to rearrange his identity to save himself from the Nazis, the brute physical fact of that circumcision keeps tripping him up, taunting his efforts at impersonation.

It’s an incredible story, as only true stories can be. Separated from his family and on the run from the Nazis, Solly, through a chain of remarkable happenstance, becomes first a model Soviet student in an orphanage devoted to Stalinist indoctrination and then a model Hitler Youth.

For nearly seven years Solly (Marco Hofschneider) lives in a state of constant alert. He is like an actor who is forever primed for performance; his survival instincts are so heightened that he finds himself merging with the characters he’s playing. Solly’s double life is a nightmarish joke: In one of the film’s key sequences, he sobs real tears when he and his fellow Hitler Youth receive the news that the Nazis have been defeated at Stalingrad.

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Holland lays Solly’s story out without any fuss or editorializing. He is perceived without blinkers, as someone who did what he had to do to survive. The incidents bounce along so rapidly that we don’t have time to be judgmental; we’re too busy gasping at the twists and turns in Solly’s odyssey. We’re constantly reminded of what is uppermost in his mind--that the only alternative to his impersonations is death.

Holland’s neutral tone takes some getting used to, but it turns out to be a remarkably judicious approach to such difficult material. She allows the story to emerge in all its ghastly permutations.

Solly’s survival owes a lot to luck but it also derives from his genius for locating the sympathy in people. In the course of the film, he puts his life in danger by opening up to few select Germans about his Jewishness, and his instincts prove correct--these people don’t betray him.

What’s remarkable about Solly is that he makes these life-or-death determinations almost instantaneously, as if they had completely bypassed his thought processes. Marco Hofschneider is excellent casting for the role. His face has an avid handsomeness untroubled by the furrows of thought; it’s an emblematic handsomeness, which is perhaps why Solly succeeds so well in the anonymous, placard-filled atmosphere of the indoctrination camps. When a Nazi teacher measures Solly’s skull with calipers in order to show him off before his class as having the requisite “Aryan” dimensions, the film (rated R for nudity) hits a black comic high note.

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Solly’s stirrings of pride at his success are all jumbled up with his sexual stirrings. He has a dalliance with Leni (Julie Delpy), a young German girl who, unbeknown to Solly, wants to conceive a child for the Fuehrer. He can’t consummate the relationship because his circumcised state would give him away, and it tears him apart.

If Solly had been an Orthodox Jew, his predicament would have been short-lived. But because he is not devout, he survives, and at the end of the movie we see the real Solomon Perel. At 65, living in Israel since the war, he faces us without accusation. He looks bewildered still, as if he didn’t know what to make of the fact that he survived. This man whose family was almost entirely wiped out must feel like he’s the recipient of a great cosmic joke, with his survival as the punch line. “Europa Europa” does justice to the joke.

‘Europa Europa’

Marco Hofschneider: Solomon Perel

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Julie Delpy: Leni

Ashley Wanninger: Gerd

An Orion Classics release. Director Agnieszka Holland. Executive producers Margaret Menegoz and Arthur Brauner. Screenplay by Agnieszka Holland, based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel. Cinematographer Jacek Petrycki. Editors Ewa Smal and Isabelle Lorente. Costumes Wieslawa Starska and Malgorzata Stefaniak. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Art director Allan Starski. Sound Elisabeth Mondi. In German and Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (nudity, violence.)

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