Europa Europa offers a picaresque tale of the childhood and adolescence of the German Jewish Solomon ‘Solly’ Perel during the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, and the Second World War. Solly lives happily with his family in Peine, Germany, but, when the persecution of Jews commences, they flee eastward, where he eventually becomes separated from his family. After a stint in a Soviet school, that is subsequently attacked, Solly uses his perfect German to join a German army unit as its Russian interpreter. His life takes another surprising turn when his Wehrmacht commanding officer decides to adopt Solly and send him to an elite Hitler Youth boarding school, where he both excels (not least with an ‘Aryan’ young woman Leni) but also has to conceal his identity from even more people. When mobilised along with other Hitler Youth in the last stages of the war, Solly finds he cannot bring himself to fire on Soviet soldiers and instead surrenders to them. Confused by his German uniform but perfect Russian, his erstwhile comrades are about to shoot him when his brother recognises him. The film ends with the voice-over that he emigrated to (then) Palestine, having decided to be openly Jewish after these many years and narrative twists of hiding his born and childhood identity.
Europa Europa (1990; released as Hitlerjunge Salomon in Germany in 1991) won the Golden Globe in 1992 for Best Foreign Language Film; it is still the veteran director Agnieszka Holland’s best-known film; and it is regarded by many as having kicked off the wave of 1990s and early 2000s Holocaust feature films, including Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994) as well as the later Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1998) and The Pianist (Steven Spielberg, 2002).1 Notably, however, it was not submitted for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film – its Golden Globe win was seen as a belated, diminished recognition – because its own origins could not be easily traced to any single country. A Polish-directed, German–French financed coproduction in which Polish, Russian and German are all spoken, it did not obviously qualify as a candidate from any particular nation. This underscores how Europa Europa manifests a very particular moment not only in the collective (mediated) memory of the Holocaust but also in European history, when the system in which Holland had grown up (and that she had deliberately departed shortly before) was falling apart. The sudden porousness of borders, unexpected vagaries of identity, and the contradictions of places and people are themes of both the film and the historical moment that produced it.
It is especially remarkable, but also telling, that the film did not end up Germany’s nominee for the foreign language Oscar, as one German committee did not deem the film ‘German’ enough for the nomination while another emphatically rejected it (both Holland and her father are Jewish, and the film’s prominent, German Jewish producer Artur Brauner, pointed out this irony of not being ruled German enough).2 The decision against Holland’s film reflects how complex and challenging the film remains about a topic, the Holocaust, about which clear moral legibility would seem most requisite, particularly for German audiences, sensitised and sensitive as they are about Germany’s crimes during the Holocaust. In terms of expected moral clarity, the film does, indeed, lead viewers to empathise with its Jewish protagonist, Solomon Perel (usually called by his nickname Solly), and certainly derides its many convinced and crude Nazis, ranging from Hitler Youth teachers all the way ‘up’ to Hitler. But both the narrative trajectory and the aesthetic register in which Holland traces Solly’s unlikely arc challenges, even defies, any Manichean good versus evil logic. Although the film can be seen to have initiated the wave of highprofile Holocaust films of the 1990s and 2000s, it is a good deal more aesthetically ambitious and ambiguous than those better-known works.
The key confusions and challenges to facile moral clarity seem to be two: on the one hand, the uncanny ability of Solly to assume and navigate completely, even shockingly, contradictory identities (German and Polish, committedly communist and then fervently Nazi, but ultimately Jewish); and, on the other, the repeated foregrounding, as well as overt eroticisation, of his adolescent body and even genitalia. Tellingly, key events of the Holocaust (1930s Nazi pogroms, 1939 invasion of Poland, 1941 invasion of Soviet Union, 1940s ghettoisation) intersect Solly’s familiar teenage struggles with inchoate identity and sexual awakening. The film’s first extended sequence foregrounds these interwoven processes of personal and sexual identity and the body in which they are housed when viewers watch, from the point of view of children peering through a window, Solly’s circumcision, which he claims to remember as an adult (the first of a number of unlikely claims made by the protagonist/periodic voice-over narrator, to add to the representational complexity). This circumcision and its role in identity is immediately thematised in the very next sequence, 13 years later, in which Solly is naked to bathe before his bar mitzvah. Subsequently, throughout the film, he assumes different identities, left nonetheless to struggle with this corporeal mark and marker of his identity.
These struggles with identity and the body on which it is indelibly written hit new heights, or lows, when, late in the film and an unlikely pupil at a Hitler Youth boarding school, Solly decides he has to reclaim his foreskin by thread and needle rather than continue to conceal his Jewish origins to Nazi friends and superiors who know him as Josef ‘Jupp’ Peters. A series of uncomfortable scenes – Solly/Jupp has to continue the school’s rigorous athletic programme despite his urological auto-surgery – reinforces the film’s exploration of the body and obsessions with it as key to the Nazi’s emphatically biopolitical project. As Janet Lungstrum convincingly argues, the film’s fetishism of Solly’s body and its circumcision in particular both mimics and critiques the regime’s obsession with the Jewish body, with foreskin as marker of indelible difference and fascination that so impressed and obsessed the Nazi state.3 For Lungstrum, there is a revealing parallel between the Jewish male, on the one side, and cinema’s female characters more generally, on the other: both Solly and women characters become the obsessive target of the fetishising gaze and both have to renounce their own desires in a disavowal of lack of those endowed with the gaze.4
This indelible mark on and of the body of the Nazis’ paradigmatic victim is, however, only one side of a contradiction that obtains throughout the film because, of course, Solly is able to become both the perfect Soviet Communist and Aryan Nazi at various times.5 Central to the film is the fundamental and constitutive performativity of identity and subsequent mutability of person, great Brechtian themes that Solomon’s autobiography seems unwittingly to convey. In this sense, the lines offered to Solly by ‘[his] only friend’ at the time he has joined the Wehrmacht, soldier Robert, seem perhaps the best maxim for the entire film. When Solly/Josef is taking a bath in a barn – another fateful bathing episode foregrounding his naked body – Robert sneaks up behind him, makes a pass and comes close to discovering his secret until Solly/Josef (once again) leaps from the tub and dances elusively away. But the young, naked hero finally breaks down and reveals to the closeted gay soldier that he is Jewish. One of only two (Gentile) Germans to learn that Solly/Josef is Jewish, Robert answers Solly/Josef’s question ‘Isn’t it hard always playing someone else?’ with the resonant ‘It’s easier than playing yourself’. It is notable that another sequence, one of two dream sequences, also has Solly/Josef in the closet, though he is sent out by the similarly crotch-covering and cowering Hitler (his likewise dreamt sister whispers that the Führer is also Jewish). Robert’s resonant recognition of the performances of identity, however, still presumes a core self the film seems (also in a Brechtian mode) at times to obliterate – it is often not clear, to viewers or Solly, who or what his self is. Holland mentioned being struck by how the contradictory selves Solly assumed each left its mark on him, as when Robert asks whether he prays and he answers with the Marxist dictum ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, even though by that point he is comfortably in a Wehrmacht uniform.
When Solly/Jupp initially confesses his Jewishness to Robert, Robert assures him that ‘there are other Germans’, presumably those who will not murder him for the identity his body still dictates. Among these ‘other Germans’ is the mother of Solly/Jupp’s later girlfriend Leni, whom he meets at the elite Hitler Youth near Brunswick (Braunschweig). Solly/Jupp lands at the school when he is adopted from his Wehrmacht unit by its commanding officer, an aristocratic captain who tells him he needs schooling, not more time in the army. He chooses for his charge one of the Hitler Youth’s schools dotting Germany at the time, where Solly/Jupp shines in the school’s sports competitions (swimming in full military kit) as well as in burgeoning sexual identity (a paradigmatic BDM member, Leni is lusted after by many of the school’s boys). The irony of Solly/Jupp’s success amidst the most convinced anti-Semites underscores the film’s generally picaresque approach, in which Solly/Jupp, a teenager without qualities, lands in the unlikeliest of contrasting situations.6 One critic has pointed to the film’s ‘deconstructive humor’ in these sequences’ depictions of buffoonish Nazis, perhaps most entertainingly represented in another of Solly’s dreams, in which Hitler dances with Stalin.7
As the war and film draw to their ends and the Hitler Youth are thrown to the front, Solly/Jupp finds that he cannot fire on his former Soviet comrades and flees his Hitler Youth schoolmates, who shoot at him as a parting gesture. He throws himself at the mercy of the Soviets, who do not know what to make of his perfect Russian but Nazi uniform; when he explains that he was hiding himself among Nazis elites because he is Jewish, they decide to let Jewish camp inmates decide what to do with him. At the moment an inmate raises the Soviet pistol to shoot him, he hears ‘Solek’ from off-screen by his long-lost brother Isaak (played by the actor’s actual brother, René Hofschneider). Their reunion is a revealing long-take embrace of laughing and crying, limning and blurring the two as the entire film has. The film concludes with voiceover by Solly that he decided to be openly Jewish from then on, to emigrate to Palestine, and segues to a shot of the actual, now old Solomon Perel singing the song offered by his mother just before the opening circumcision. Singing, he walks off in to a verdant landscape, a seeming citation of the similarly singing-and-landscaped opening sequence of Claude Lanzmann’s magisterial 1984/85 Shoah.
This sudden happy end, with brother Isaak ex machina, was one of the most notable liberties taken by the film with the source text. As the epilogue emphasises, Europa Europa is based on Perel’s autobiography, with a number of details changed (perhaps the most important other instance, the abrupt and powerful opening, with the 1930s murder of his sister, was an invention of the script; Bertha was, in fact, murdered late in the war on a death march from one concentration camp to another). In his autobiography, Solly/Jupp’s service to the Reich ended not when he wilfully fled the Hitler Youth for the Soviets; rather he was taken prisoner, along with some other Hilter Youth, by US soldiers, stripped of Nazi regalia, and then released. Subsequently searching for news of his family in both his old (German) hometown of Peine as well as Bergen Belsen (the first British liberated camp), he received information about them from some Jews who recognised him from his time in Lodz. Perhaps most surprisingly given the film’s arc, Solly also worked in this period for the Soviet occupational authorities as an interpreter, although he did later decline to extend his work with Soviet forces. Eventually, through information gained from friends in Peine, he did make his way to his brother Isaak, then living in Munich after being liberated form Dachau, and then finally, as the film indicates, to Palestine and his brother David.
As noted above, Europa Europa helped initiate the 1990s and 2000s wave of Europe-set blockbuster Holocaust films, with most assuming the generic contours of historical drama. In fact, many scenes and scenarios of Europa Europa reappear in these films. For instance, the non-linear beginning and end appear in Schindler’s List, which, like Europa Europa, commences with a Jewish religious ceremony and ends by departing its fictional diegesis for shots of the people on whom the film has based its fictionalised account (of Solomon Perel in Europa Europa and of the various ‘Schindler Jews’ as well as Schindler’s wife in Schindler’s List, though, notably, Holland has said she dislikes the ending of Schindler’s List). Like the Pianist, Europa Europa wraps its Jewish protagonist in a Nazi jacket for ironic warmth and protection. Life is Beautiful revisits the memorable scene in which its protagonist is displayed before schoolchildren to illustrate how one can easily identify the Aryan body by its markers and measurements, when, in fact, the body used in the pedantically racist demonstration is actually Jewish. In none of those later and subsequently better-known films, however, is the line between victim and perpetrator as deliberately blurred and then satirically exploited, to such disquieting and devastating effect, as in Europa Europa.
1. Hansen, ‘Schindler’s List is not Shoah’, pp. 292–3.
2. Lungstrum, ‘Foreskin Fetishism’, p. 54.
3. Ibid., p. 58ff.
4. Ibid., p. 61.
5. Holland named Woody Allen’s Zelig as an inspiration; see Rosenbaum, ‘What is a Jew?’.
6. Perel mentioned Voltaire’s Candide as a model for his autobiography; see Lungstrum, ‘Foreskin Fetishims’, p. 55.
7. Linville, ‘Agniezska Holland’s Europa, Europa’.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany, France, Poland. Production Company: Central Cinema Company Film (CCC)/ Les Films du Losange. Director: Agnieszka Holland. Producers: Artur Brauner, Margaret Ménégoz. Screenwriter: Agnieszka Holland (based on Solomon Perel’s book). Cinematographer: Jacek Petrycki. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Editors: Isabelle Lorente, Ewa Smal. Cast: Marco Hofschneider (Solomon Perel/Josef Peters), Julie Delpy (Leni), René Hofschneider (Isaak Perel), Piotr Kozlowski (David Perel), André Wilms (Soldier Robert Kellerman), Ashley Wanninger (Gerd), Halina Labonarska (Leni’s Mother), Klaus Abramowsky (Solomon’s Father), Michele Gleizer (Solomon’s Mother), Marta Sandrowicz (Bertha Perel).]
Omer Bartov, The Jews in Cinema: From the Golem to Don’t Touch My Holocaust, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2005.
David Bathrick, Brad Prager and Michael Richardson (eds), Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory, Rochester, NY, Camden House, 2008.
Susan Bernofsky, ‘Restaging the Past: Hitlerjunge Salomon and its reception in Germany’, faultline, No. 1,1992, pp. 11–20.
Miriam Hansen, ‘Schindler’s List is not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 292–312.
Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, 2003.
Susan E. Linville, ‘Agniezska Holland’s Europa, Europa: deconstructive humor in a Holocaust film’, Film Criticism, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1995, pp. 44–53.
Janet Lungstrum, ‘Foreskin Fetishism: Jewish Male Difference in Europa, Europa’, Screen, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 53–66.
Solomon Perel, Europa Europa, New York, Wiley, 1999.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘What is a Jew?’ Chicago Reader, November 8, 1991. Available at www. jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7287
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.