In the months before war was officially declared in 1939, British strangers saved some 10,000 mostly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia by taking them into their homes and hostels, far from Hitler and his murdering Nazis. The hope was for eventual reunification of parent and child; the reality, of course, was far grimmer and cataclysmic. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport recounts the extraordinary and unique rescue mission primarily through the testimony of a handful of the now gray-haired children, der kinder, who survived to bear witness.
Writer and director Mark Jonathan Harris previously documented the wilderness years of many Jews after liberation from Nazi concentration camps in the Oscar-winning 1997 documentary The Long Way Home; producer Deborah Oppenheimer’s mother was among the rescued children. Their film is as well made and meticulously researched as we have come to expect from such pristine educational projects, enhanced with impressive archival footage and stills, heightened by carefully chosen music and sound, and elevated by properly dignified narration, in this case by Judi Dench.
The dramatic power, though, comes entirely from the eloquence of old people, shot in medium close-up, barely moving as they remember things that happened over a half century ago. Aside from the important history lesson they impart, these wrinkled, worn non-celebrities teach something else, too, about the heart of cinematic storytelling: Character, so crucial to making the screen come alive, isn’t acquired through costume, makeup, or special effects. Whether through actorly art or personal integrity, it comes from within. And by such standards, the men and women of Into the Arms of Strangers are real stars. B+