Thursday, May 19, 2011

All About the Foreskin

When I decided to watch Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990), I would be lying if I said it wasn't because of the cute male lead featured on the film's poster. I must admit, it was a particularly shallow decision on my part. My shallowness was rewarded not five minutes after the film started when the lead actor went full frontal, which prompted me to (somewhat) jokingly call it the Best Holocaust Film Ever. For as superficial as I was in selecting Europa Europa, however, the film was surprisingly focused on the superficiality of the world the main character, Solly (Marco Hofschneider), inhabits as a Jew masquerading as a Hitler Youth in the heart of Nazi Germany.

For starters, the main crux of Europa Europa revolves around the main character's lack of a foreskin. Although the Nazis teach that Jews have defining physical characteristics that make them easy to spot, not having a foreskin is really the only physical characteristic that will give Solly away as a Jew. Studying at a prestigious school in Germany, Solly is forced to take painstaking efforts to make sure he is not caught. He refuses to use the bathroom in front of others. When a doctor comes to do a yearly physical exam, he fakes a toothache which leads to a dentist pulling out a non-infected tooth in order to avoid exposing himself. Solly, at one point. even takes the drastic measure of pulling down what little skin he has around his penis and trying to force it to look like a foreskin. Everywhere he goes, Solly is tormented by this physical inadequacy. Even when visiting his Jew-hating girlfriend's mother, a naked statue in the corner taunts Solly; the statue is afforded a freedom, an openness that Solly can not have.

Early on in the film, before the Nazi takeover completely takes over his life, Solly admits to having acting aspirations to a girlfriend of his. An appropriate career choice, it appears, as he spends his teenage years in one role after another, first as a born again Communist in Stalin-era Soviet Union then as a good little Nazi, first on the Eastern front then in a prestigious school in Germany. Solly adorns many different costumes and plays many different roles, changing depending on whatever he needs to do in order to survive. A fellow Nazi who learns Solly's secret, an actor himself, reveals to Solly that "the hardest role is playing yourself." The problem is that Solly has no idea how to play himself. He is constantly playing an idea of himself. Never allowed to be truly unguarded, Solly is hiding his true self underneath layers of superficial characteristics like an uniform or, most importantly, a foreskin. Hofschneider is, in effect, giving a performance within a performance.

Some critics complained that he takes a far too lackadaisical approach in his performance, coming off, at certain times, as humorous in a Holocaust film (Heaven forbid!). But, if you look carefully, that is precisely the point. Holland and Hofschneider are commenting on and parodying the over-the-top pageantry of the Nazi movement. Between the constant Heil Hitlers, the massive banners, the snappy, smartly coordinated uniforms and the never-ending barrage of "inspiring" sing-alongs, the entire Nazi movement, as The Triumph of the Will can attest to, was nothing but evil and hatred masquerading as the most glorious parade ever assembled. If Hofschneider is funny--and he is--it is because the surface of Nazism is silly in and of itself, not because he's trying to make a mockery of the Holocaust. One scene in particular stands out as a perfect example of this. Solly has just returned to Germany to get a proper education after spending time at the front. He is introduced to the entire school via a very elaborate pep assembly, for lack of a better word, that involves Solly reciting an oath to Hitler and the entire school joining in for a rousing rendition of a song about slaughtering Jews. Afterwards, Solly explores the school on his own and wanders into an abandoned area of the school where a mirror hangs on the wall. Noticing that his Heil Hitlers could stand a little practice, Solly decides to take this opportunity to practice.

He does this a few times, trying to decide on the proper way to execute this greeting. Finally, however, Solly picks up on the ridiculousness of the movement and starts acting a little silly.

Within seconds, this playful jab turns into a full-on mockery with Solly turning the Heil into a snide tap dance.


On its surface, Europa Europa touches on all the points you would expect in this type of inspirational true account of a Holocaust survivor. What sets it apart from the Defiances of the world is the fact that the film is constantly coming to terms with bigger, less discussed issues than the typical "Wow, I can't believe someone actually went through this" tearjerking Holocaust film. Europa Europa grapples with heavy themes but manages to both elicit humor and tears with the same ease. Holland and Hofschneider's work here is truly impeccable and goes to prove that 45 years after the end of World War II, there are still issues that need to be dealt with. B+

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