Europa Europa (1990) (R)

So you have true stories and then you have true stories and I'm not sure where "Europa Europa" falls. The movie concerns the true(ish) story of Salomon Perel as he tries to survive World War II.
Starting in Germany, we journey with Salomon or Solly (Marco Hofschneider) as he tries to hide his penis...sorry, was that too insensitive?
But no, listen, it makes sense. The movie starts with our main character's circumcision—an event that he claims to remember—and from then on, it's as if he's cursed. No one could have predicted the hell that followed those years. Born on the same day that Hitler was, Salomon escapes the initial wave of German onslaught directed against the Jews by hiding. From then on, it's a game of cat and mouse between him and the rest of the world. He tries to switch allegiances, he tries to become different people, he learns new languages...just for survival. If nothing else "Europa Europa" rather subtly asks us what we would do to live. Would we die for our heritage? For our religion? For our family?
After their home town is bombed, Salomon and his brother run off to the East, to Poland, which has just been overrun. Almost drowning in a river and being rescued by a Russian soldier, Salomon is sent off to a school where he learns Russian and becomes a nice little Communist. This is the time when Hitler and Stalin were best buddies...but that time didn't last forever. As tensions grow between the European commanders, the Germans invade and wreck havoc on the town. Salomon has to escape again; but this time his Jewish heritage is what will kill him. By pure luck or divine intervention, he wins the eye of a few German officers and when they learn he can speak German and Russian, it's only a few steps from being a star.
Though the entire movie consists of a man running from his family and the truth for the sake of survival, "Europa Europa" is remarkably bland. It's not as suspenseful as it could be and the odd moments of awkward-meets-sentimental just feel like they belong more in a comedy than a Holocaust drama. 
The entire success of the movie rests on Marco Hofschneider's shoulders to be a completely convincing character...and sadly he's not. This isn't to say that he doesn't do a remarkable job, but the role requires something transcendent and he's just not that.
In Salomon's mind, the difference between himself and the Germans just lies in a "simple foreskin". This leads him to take drastic measures to hide himself, which becomes hard when every person he comes across is attracted to his youthful beauty. 
Yet director Agnieszka Holland wants to make us cry too much. She pulls out all the strings, literally. The music is so loud and emotional that it becomes very distracting. "Europa Europa" descends into the awkward mesh of good drama and....meh.
There are some great moments in the film, most of them in a dreamscape fashion. The beginning shot shows Salomon swimming silently through water, as if he's drowning in everything. Then there's the moment in a dream where Hitler and Stalin make a little waltz around the school. The metaphors are nice; and the story is a compelling one.
I find that you can't make a Holocaust movie and just expect everyone to love it because of its source material. Isn't that insulting? Now don't get the wrong idea, I liked "Europa Europa"; but is it really as good as everyone says that it is? I don't think so.
And if the story is true (the real Salomon Perel makes a cameo in the movie) then I have all the more respect for the man...but not the movie.

Score: ★★½

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