Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Life is Stranger than Fiction

Film: Hitlerjunge Salomon (Europa Europa)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’ve commented before on the glut of films on The List that concern World War II in general and The Holocaust in specific. I’d be hard pressed to claim that I’m tired of these films or this topic, but there does come a time when I wonder how often I’m going to essentially see the same story over and over. I’ve come to appreciate films like Idi i Smotri that offer up a story tangential to The Holocaust without being the exact same story of murder, oppression, and palpable evil. We can get used to anything, I suppose, and so after so many films about the suffering of European Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s, there’s a part of me that nods and thinks I’ve seen enough.

So imagine my surprise when Hitlerjunge Salomon (Europa Europa) arrived with an actual new story about the Jewish experience before and during World War II. Based on the real life and experience of Salomon Perel, this is perhaps the most astonishing tale of this time ever told. Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) survives in any way he can through the war as a Jew, and does so in the most astonishing way possible.

Salomon and his family are German and Jewish, which is not the best combination for Nazi Germany. On the night of Salomon’s Bar Mitzvah, Kristalnacht occurs, and his sister Berta is killed by brownshirts. The family flees to Poland and are safe for about a year before the German invasion of their new homeland. Salomon’s parents (Klaus Abramowsky and Michele Gleizer) decide that the best course of action for their younger boys is to get them out of Poland and into Russia. Salomon and his brother Isaac (Rene Hofschneider) leave, but are separated almost immediately.

Salomon ends up living in a Soviet orphanage for two years and is indoctrinated in communist thought and is taught Russian. But nothing happens for too long in Salomon’s world, and eventually the Germans invade the Soviet Union and Salomon is once again left on his own, left behind as the remnants of his orphanage flee further into Soviet territory. Along with many others, he is captured, but hides his papers and claims to be a native German named Joseph “Jupp” Peters. Shockingly, he is believed and is immediately accepted into the band of German soldiers who captured him. He becomes a sort of mascot and unofficial translator. When the troop captures Stalin’s son, “Joseph” is declared a good luck charm.

His status as a German and as a good luck mascot is solidified when he takes over a Russian position on accident, actually trying to give himself up. The Germans decide that someone with his obvious pedigree should get the best possible education, and our hero is sent off to the top Hitler Youth academy in the country, a fact that has its benefits and its very real dangers.

One of the benefits is Leni (Julie Delpy), an Aryan girl who develops quite a crush on “Jupp,” one that is mutual. A significant danger, though, is that he has been circumcised, which means that no matter how much he wishes it, intimacy is pretty much impossible. This is brought home to him when Leni confesses her intense desire to kill Jews in the name of the Fuhrer. Salomon lives in fear of being discovered, and several moments—being called out to test his racial purity—put him in serious danger.

The main issue I have with Hitlerjunge Salomon is a difficult one with which to deal. The problem is that this film really just hammers the same point over and over. I have no issues with how it is acted, with the cinematography, the casting, or the direction. All of these aspects of the film are excellent. The problem is that the story is more or less the same thing over and over. Something happens, Salomon worries that he’ll be discovered, and he makes it through.

The reason this is difficult to deal with is that the film is based on a real story, and it’s difficult to find fault in a film when it follows an actual story. But in truth, it doesn’t ever do anything much different. While it’s not slow, it’s just a series of hurdles without a great deal of rising in intensity.

Don’t get me wrong—this film is well made and worth watching, but don’t expect this to be a life changer.

Why to watch Hitlerjunge Salomon: The strangest tale of the Holocaust ever told.
Why not to watch: Despite its pedigree of truth, it still seems far-fetched.


  1. I saw it this year too. I thought I'd like Europa Europa based on the acclaim. I think we are on the same page with this one. It was decent, but didn't affect me as much as I think the filmmakers were intending.
    Maybe I've become immune having watched a fair amount of WW2 drama's about Jews over the years...

    Come and See (1985), looks pretty brutal from the IMDB poster!

    1. Come and See is brutal, but it's also magnificent. It's a "watch it once" film, though. I don't think I could handle it a second time.