It would be difficult to imagine a story of Holocaust survival more absurd or miraculous — or more tailor-made for the movies — than that of Solomon Perel, the true-life hero of Europa, Europa, which has been packing select urban art houses and is about to receive a vigorous national release. A German Jew born in 1925, Perel was a teenager when he fell into the hands of the Nazis, whose presence had already forced his family to scatter. The young Solly avoided being sent to a concentration camp through a remarkable act of deception. By a combination of luck, daring, and imaginative stealth, and also (as the film tells it) because he lacked conventionally Semitic facial features, he was able to pass himself off as an Aryan. Adopted as a mascot by the German soldiers, then hailed as a young hero and sent to a training school for the Hitler Youth, he spent the war living shoulder to shoulder with the very people who were bent on his annihilation.
In a sense, the irony of Solly Perel’s story is so powerful, so front and center, that the Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland need do little more than stage Perel’s memoirs in the casual, one-incident-after-another style of a made-for-TV movie. And, in truth, that’s all she’s really done. Yet Holland’s light-fingered approach serves the material well. Europa, Europa, which is in German and Russian, has a few scenes of raw, tightrope suspense, most of them centering on Solly’s desperate attempts to keep his circumcised penis a secret. Mostly, though, the movie is content to be a historical picaresque: the tale of a Holocaust survivor as existential Candide.
For Solly, the simple prospect of a medical checkup spells doom. When he hears there’s going to be one at the Hitler Youth academy, a wave of terror passes over his face. Then, with lightning intuition, he starts moaning about an aching tooth. He is carted off to the dentist (so much for the checkup), who pulls out the ”offending” tooth, noting — with a puzzled expression — that it looks quite healthy. The improvisatory speed with which Solly’s survival instinct takes over is at once heroic and comical. His actions are like those of a supremely skilled undercover agent. The film’s drama springs not simply from his masterful deception but from the way his ongoing ruse offers him a queasy, voyeuristic glimpse into the dark soul of the Nazi machine. Solly has to play along with his comrades’ gleeful cracks about what swine the Jews are (some of these comments come from the sweet-faced German fräulein he starts dating). The movie reaches its comic apotheosis when he is called to the front of a class on racial physiognomy and held up as a sterling example of Aryan purity.
Europa, Europa isn’t the wrenching emotional saga it might have been. For the most part, the characters are drawn in broad, easy-to-read strokes. As Solly, Marco Hofschneider, with his beautifully chiseled features, has the right, clear-eyed inscrutability — it’s easy to see how his single-mindedness about ”passing” could be read as the fervor of a young Nazi — but we don’t get a rich enough sense of what’s going on beneath the act. Even the excruciating scenes in which he ties string around his penis to try to create a foreskin are powerful mostly because Solly is putting himself through such physical pain. The movie scarcely addresses the question of how he felt about his Jewishness — how the years of living (and, indeed, participating) in a climate of murderous anti-Semitism affected Solly Perel’s vision of himself. Was he furious, deranged, numb? Had his identity become muddled? At the end of the movie, we get a shot of the real Solly Perel (who, incidentally, looks nothing like the sleek-faced Marco Hofschneider), now 65 and living in Israel. There’s a solemn mystery about that face that Europa, Europa, good as it is, never comes close to touching.