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For, Friday, July 26, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The boutique video line Criterion Collection has given new life to this German film from the early 1990s with a Blu-ray upgrade complete with copious bonus features. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Jan. 31, 1992.

"Europa, Europa" is a fascinating character study, the true story of Solomon Perel, born of Polish-Jewish parents in Germany, who, as a teenager, found himself in perilous situations in wartime Europe — situations that called for quick thinking and perhaps a miracle or two.

The circumstances, however, also required, for the sake of self-preservation, that Perel deny who he was. This moral ambiguity naturally brought him no small amount of distress, forcing him on more than one occasion to suffer great internal conflict.

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has done a remarkable job of portraying Perel's life in cinematic terms, investing a surprising amount of humor in the irony that runs through his story.


The film begins in essence on the eve of "Solly" Perel's bar mitzvah in 1938, as the persecution of Jews in Peine, Germany, builds to its zenith. Eventually, the family makes plans to leave Germany, but when war breaks out Solly and his brother are sent out of the city by their father — and Solly's odyssey begins.

He becomes separated from his brother, finds himself among the Bolsheviks who control Eastern Poland and winds up in an orphanage with young Russians, Poles and other Jews. And, in order to fit in, Solly begins to abandon his religious beliefs.

When Germany attacks Russia, Solly, who speaks Russian, is confronted by German soldiers. He denies he is Jewish and becomes their mascot. Later, he tries to escape but inadvertently helps the Germans capture an important Russian unit and is hailed a hero.

During all this, Solly realizes that the only physical evidence of his Jewishness is his circumcision, which he takes great pains to hide.


Shortly thereafter, Solly is sent to a Hitler Youth school, where he is indoctrinated in Nazi beliefs and finds himself joining in as his peers spout their hatred of the Jews. But inside he is constantly ill at ease.

"Europa, Europa" could have been a solemn, melodramatic film, but Holland plays up the sense of irony that seems to confront Solly at every turn. This makes the subject matter no less shocking and allows the audience to feel dismay at some of Solly's choices as he is whisked along by fate.

Also a stirring film that tackles issues of identity and integrity head on, "Europa, Europa" packs an enormous wallop in several key scenes.

It is rated R for violence, sex, nudity and vulgarity.