One of the most striking World War II dramas I have ever seen, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa is an adaptation of Solomon Perel’s 1989 autobiography I Was Hitler Youth Salomon. Describing Perel’s efforts to conceal himself as a Nazi during World War II in order to escape genocide, I Was Hitler Youth Salomon revolves around two key relationships – with a homosexual senior Nazi officer and a member of the Nazi League of German Girls – and the risks and fleeting moments of protection that they provide. Taking her cue from the first relationship in particular, Holland paints an incredibly homoerotic depiction of the Second World War – I couldn’t believe that this won the Oscar for Best Foreign Feature – that often seems to anticipate Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book in the way in which it opts for farce as a way of avoiding anything resembling exploitative Holocaust kitsch. At the same time, there’s an irreverent refusal to sentimentalise the Second World War through childhood consciousness as well, making for a picaresque brutality that refuses to cordon off the conflict or relate it to the comforting stylised historicity of, say, Schindler’s List.
Key to that process is the way in which nearly every historical sequence is overlaid with a heightened apprehension of the young male body, while the film as a whole is shot through with a rambunctious adolescent sexuality, a cruisey kind of opportunism that sees everyone seeking gratification whenever and wherever they can find it. From the opening depiction of his circumcision (which he apparently remembers), Solomon’s lack of a foreskin is presented as the most emphatic and dramatic index of his Judaism, so it makes sense that the onset of World War II coincides with his sexual awakening and discovery of his genital potency, as Holland pores over his physique and rotates him with a fetishistic scrutiny that often recalls a series of Pierre et Gilles tableaux or a high-end Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. Throughout the film, everyone continually comments on Solomon’s beauty, especially his sister, who apparently always wanted to be the boy of the family, but whose feminine graces seem to have been absorbed into Solomon’s androgynous nubility as well. Throughout the film, too, everyone seems to be glimpsing or trying to glimpse Solomon’s body, especially in and around those Nazi persecution rituals in which the presence or absence of a foreskin was so critical. It’s appropriate, then, that the audience first glimpses Solomon’s naked body during Kristallnacht, which catches him unawares in the bathroom and forces him to flee, naked, into the street, where he hurriedly clothes himself in some discarded Nazi regalia in order to return safely home once the soldiers have moved on.
That proximity of the Nazi uniform and naked male body makes for a film that is unprecedented in its attention to the homoeroticism of the Third Reich, as well as the dual diasporas of Jews and homosexuals that it produced. Time and again, the shame of being outed as Jewish is converged with the shame of being outed as homosexual, as Holland builds a hectic, frenetic sense of space in which Solomon’s body is always placed in unusual, contorted positions that bring him into unexpected contact with the screen and frequently end with him being hustled, jostled or otherwise held by older men. It’s a vision of history in which homoerotic communion and motivation isn’t tactfully elided, which is perhaps why it sometimes feels “unhistorical,” or paced too melodramatically for a regular period piece, with Holland opting for short, sensationalist, plosive tableaux that are often separated by long lapses in time. Yet Europa Europa is never placed so as to feel tastefully or artfully “episodic” either, since any pretence to that kind of calm and commanding cross-section is continually undercut by the erotic excess that consumes each scene from within. There’s a particularly ejaculatory intensity to the war scenes, which usually consist of Solomon trying to make it to or from moving vehicles before giving himself over to oblivion, part of a tendency towards lurid snapshots of the war (the treatment of the Warsaw Ghetto is brilliant) rather than meticulous or tasteful exercises in historical reconstruction.
Yet the film works the other way as well, with Solomon’s moments of intense, visceral pleasure seeming to give way as if inevitably to sequences of full-blown warfare. While it may sound like a strange thing to say, it is almost as if Holland discovers a cruisey, erotic kind of rhythm in the mass displacements and migrations of civilians during the war, which here unleash an homoerotic potency that indiscriminately cuts across the masculinist rhetoric of fascism and communism as it is presented in the film. At the same time, that works brilliantly to evoke the covert homoerotic communions amongst Nazi officers themselves, as well as the extent to which those communions constitute Nazism in the first place. In another kind of film, there might turn out to be one homosexual Nazi that was thereby differentiated from the rest, but here there are only greater and lesser degrees of homoerotic regard, greater and lesser degrees of fascist sublimation. As a result, once Solomon joins the Nazi camp in the second act, he finds himself having to court the soldiers without ever disclosing his penis, creating an enormous tension around what will occur if and when he reveals himself, as well as an almost comic awareness that every conversation turns, in some way, upon that very prospect.
In one of the most spectacular sequences in this act, it becomes clear that male beauty is a key criterion – possibly the main criterion – in distinguishing Aryans from Jews, with Solomon’s teacher informing him that since “the Nordic man is the gem of the earth…not merely the most talented but the most beautiful” then the only way to truly distinguish young Jews from young Aryans is to obsessively and continually scrutinise every feature of their faces and physiques. In the process, all the rhetoric of Social Darwinism is condensed to a series of fetishistic instruments to measure beauty – especially a device used for ascertaining “Jewish head dimensions” – which turn out, surprisingly, to indicate that Solomon does have some kind of deep Aryan ancestry, at least at the level of beauty. With Aryanism therefore equated with extreme beauty – or extreme beauty overtaking Aryanism as the most important qualification for Nazi approval – Solomon suddenly finds himself to be a member of the party in a very real and authentic way, giving his oscillations between past and present, and deception and identification, an incredibly convulsive and compelling quality.
It’s no surprise, then, that Holland presents Nazi ritual as converging on groups of young men and boys in contorted, geometric and intricate configurations – complicated orchestrations of skin-on-skin contact that recall Pasolini’s Salo more emphatically than any other war film I’ve seen. In one bravura sequence, Solomon loses his virginity to his lover from the Nazi League of German Girls, played by Julie Delpy, on a train, screaming “Mein Fuhrer” at the moment of climax and howling out the window like a wolf as sparks from the engine fly by in the night. Yet that orgasmic intensity is immediately contained by Holland cutting to an entire field of Nazi officers engaging in some kind of weird wrestling match – too slow and sensuous to really be aggressive or militaristic – before being called to attention and introduced to Solomon (now “Solek”) who pledges his allegiance to Hitler before the crowd.
In the process, Hitler takes on an incredible intensity as signifier and symbol, standing in for the homosexual potentiality of every encounter as well as the libidinal force of every repressed or perverted desire. Or, rather, the “Fuhrer” takes on that intensity and is progressively dissociated from Hitler himself, who pops in a recurrent dream sequence as a creepy old man in a closet who stalks and terrorises Solomon. The Fuhrer, on the other hand, is the source of all erotic knowledge and power, which is perhaps why the “Heil” salute comes to feel so masturbatory or ejaculatory or obscene in some obscure oneiric way, culminating with a brilliant scene in which Solomon practises it in front of the mirror only for his body to start writhing with orgasmic delight, forcing him into an outburst of manic dancing. As that might suggest, then, Solomon never quite identifies with the Nazis nor leaves behind his Jewish heritage either, since the Third Reich is presented here as a force field of smouldering and unspoken desires that intersects with his own trajectory and momentarily consumes it over the course of his journey, in what probably amounts to one of the most accurate depictions of how ideology made its way into the lives of ordinary people as the Second World War escalated and expanded.
Yet that failure of Solomon to ever extricate himself from this matrix removes any kind of privileged childhood perspective, turning Europa Europa into a satirical commentary on films that contrast (adult) war with (childhood) innocence, as much as a parodic riff on tasteful historical drama. If anything, Holland collapses the horrors of combat and the privilege of childhood into a profound continuity between adults and children – both are driven by the same brutal and bodily drives – that almost makes relationships between adults and children feel like a foregone conclusion. The effect is all the more unsettling in that Europa Europa almost plays as a childrens’ film, so sensational and picaresque is the pace, which seems designed to preclude an adult audience ever being “immersed” in any regular way, with no single scene settling long enough for us to get beyond the surface of things, or the surface of Solomon’s body and the bodies of the men around him. Even at its most brutal, it never quite loses the feeling of a dark, exotic fairy tale – probably closer in spirit to Emir Kusturica’s Underground than any other contemporary film – allowing Holland to position all the action at the lurid edges of the war that we usually only glimpse (if we see at all) in other war films. Of course, Nazism was also a movement that targeted children more than any other demographic – the original title of the film is I Was Hitler Youth Salomon, like the autobiography itself – and Holland gradually builds to a hellish point at which it becomes clear that there are no real adults in this world, or that the few remaining adults who haven’t been infantilised by the Third Reich are somehow irrelevant and beside the point.
As in a children’s film, too, Solomon continually finds himself to be the man of the hour, elevated to higher and higher posts in the Nazi party without having to lift a finger, momentarily transformed into the hero of his own story even as he is scrutinised in increasingly perverse and precarious ways. Once he arrives at the top of the ladder and enters the final and most exclusive Nazi compound, it feels as if he is never too far away from a state of undress, with the continual presence of showers and change rooms suddenly bringing the iconography and imagery of the Holocaust to the fore in an unbelievably chilling manner, in what almost amounts to a return of the repressed, so totally have all these mechanisms been subsumed into the libidinal economy of the film. Yet if Europa Europa does have a single horrific climax, it doesn’t inhere so much in these historic events themselves but in the toll they take on Solomon’s penis, since it’s only a matter of time before concealment isn’t enough and he tries instead to recircumcise himself, pulling his foreskin down and holding it in place with a thread. That leads to the central image of the film – his penis injured by recircumcision efforts, pus building around the tip as it turns into an abject epicentre of pain – that not even his much-lauded face is able to fully conceal as the story moves on towards its inexorable conclusion.
For the last third, then, Solomon is always on the very of screaming out in agony, barely repressing a convulsive cry that makes his actions and impulses even more radically infantile than when he was supposedly more immature or inexperienced. In an incredible final sequence, he suddenly and impulsively shifts sides during a siege of a burned-out building, leading to an abrupt reconciliation with his family while he is still in Nazi regalia, as they collapse together in a hysterical outburst of laughter and tears, a manic release of affective energy that can’t be contained in any single emotion. In the last scene, we see the family finally urinating together freely in the rain, able to be open about their circumcision once again, a image made even more extraordinary by the way in which it segues into the actual Solomon Perel’s final appearance and narration: “From that moment on I decided to be a Jew…when I had sons, I barely hesitated to circumcise them.” It’s a fitting ending to one of the bravest films about the Second World War I’ve ever seen, a film that refuses to repress the libidinal drives and homoerotic regards that make history – and make discrimination – and, in doing so, refuses to leave the audience with any comforting aftertaste of critical distance or historical reconstruction, instead immersing us in history as an iteration of the present tense.