Political Film Society - Newsletter #164 - April 1, 2003



April 1, 2003


 

SOME JEWS ESCAPE THE HOLOCAUST, OTHERS STAY BEHIND
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) focused on Italian Jews who thought they would be exempt from the Nazi's "final solution." The same naïve attitude returns this year in two recent films, Nowhere in Africa and All My Loved Ones.

Nowhere in AfricaIn Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika), a German film directed by Caroline Link, a Jewish nuclear family in Breslau, Germany, wisely exits from the country in 1938. In view of the fact that immigration opportunities were closed to Jews in the Northern Hemisphere, Walter Redlich (played by Merab Ninidze) relocates in British Kenya. He then asks his wife Jettel (played by Juliane Köhler) and daughter Regina (played at various ages by Karoline Eckertz and Lea Kurka), to join him. Other members of the Redlich family stay in Germany, and the Redlichs later learn of their fate as victims of the Holocaust. Although the family is biologically Jewish, they do not practice Judaism and have always considered themselves German. Walter is a lawyer, but the only work available in Kenya is as a manager of a small farm. In 1940, all persons in Kenya with German passports are rounded up as enemy aliens. The men are sent to a detention camp, the women and children to a posh hotel. Jettel tries to get help from longtime a Jewish resident in Nairobi, but to no avail. Then a British officer tells Jettel that a British citizen, drafted into the army, has left a farm behind with a need for a manager. Accordingly, the Redlichs go to a second farm. Next, they enroll Regina in a British boarding school. One day, an opportunity arises for Walter to fight in the war. To the chagrin of Jettel, he leaves, though she enjoys occasional male companionship with a neighbor, a gentleman named Süsskind (played by Matthias Habich). When the war ends, Walter returns. In 1946, he applies for the position of judge in the newly created German State of Hesse, as the army will pay transportation costs from Kenya to Frankfurt. After a display of emotions, Walter's wife and daughter agree to return. The story, based on the autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig, stresses many themes, but the most important is the concept of "difference," that is, the existence of various ethnocultural ancestries and traditions. Culture shock affects Jettel more than her husband and daughter, but in time she is transformed psychologically. One reason is that the native Kenyans prove to be exemplary hosts, from Owuor (played by Sidede Onyulo), who is their cook, to the rituals that Kenyans celebrate. However, the departure of the Redlichs for Germany means that Owuor no longer has a job, so in the end he goes on a "safari," with every expectation that he will die, thus serving as yet another paradigm in the film--about the cruelty and even Holocaust of imperialism. MH

In 1938, twenty-nine-year-old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton (played by Rupert Graves) began to organize an effort to have British families adopt Jewish children in Czechoslovakia as a part of what was called the kindertransport, which involved a total of some 10,000 children from Austria as well as Germany. Not all the "endangered children" were hustled out of Czechoslovakia by train to England, but 669 were. All My Loved Ones (Vsichni moji blízcí), dedicated to Winton, is about one such adoptee, David Silberstein (played by Brano Holicek), who provides occasional voiceovers during the film. Most of the movie, however, focuses on family life of the Jewish community in Prague before David's departure. Similar to the Redlichs in Nowhere in Africa, most of the Silbersteins do not practice Judaism and consider themselves Czech. Unprepared for the horrors to come, none of the rest of the family survives the Holocaust. Through newsreels, the film features the 1938 Munich betrayal of Czechoslovakia, Germany's occupation of the Sudetenland, and the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. Personal tragedies unfold because of the larger political situation. At the beginning of the film, in the year 1938, a landlord (played by Jirí Menzel) sells the estate where the Silbersteins are living to physician Dr. Jakob Silberstein (played by Josef Abrhám) for peanuts, yet the family does not get the hint that all Jews should leave. Jakob's brother Samuel, an accomplished violinist (played by Jiri Bartoska) wants to marry a non-Jewish woman; his rabbi brother Leo (played by Krzysztof Kolberger) is not happy about the prospect of outmarriage but consents, only to have the Gentile father veto the marriage because the news tells him that the wife of a Jew almost certainly would be rounded up by the Nazis and die. Samuel, whose concerts were canceled by the Nazis, naïvely rejects the explanation and commits suicide. Jakob arranges to have his son David go on the kindertransport, and he also pays a friend $10,000 Czech dollars to arrange a passport for himself and his wife Irma (played by Libuse Safránková), but the friend absconds from the country with the money. Robert (played by Andrzej Deskur), fiancé of the Silberstein's daughter Hedvika (played by Tereza Brodská), takes off for Palestine, another option foolishly rejected by the others, who see the soil there as a desert. Young David, meanwhile, has a sweetheart, Sosa (played by Lucia Culkova); the ten-year-olds even have a mock secret two-person wedding one day. David therefore counts on escaping to England on the same train with her. Unfortunately, Sosa is booked on a later train, scheduled to depart September 1, 1939, but alas that train did not leave, as Britain declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland on that day. The film is directed by Metej Minac, who is the son of a child who was on the kindertransport and is based on his mother's recollections. In 1998, when Winton was ninety-two years old, President Vaclav Havel honored him with a high award. Videos of a 1998 reunion involving Winton and some of the surviving children bookend the film, an event for which Winton, who kept his role a secret for many years, forgot to bring along a handkerchief; he did not realize that he would need to dry his eyes. We await a similar feature film about Operation Babylift, in which over 2,000 out of an estimated 70,000 Vietnamese young orphans were flown on several flights to adopting families in Australia, the United States, and other countries from April 3, 1975, under a similar pretext. Meanwhile, the Political Film Society has nominated All My Loved Ones for best exposé of 2003. MH