Film captures pain of Holocaust

by Benjamin B. Bolger | 7/11/01 5:00am

For many people around the world, it is still extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with the unprecedented genocide, sharp scarring pain and permanent devastation of the Holocaust. But cinema, if used with care and thoughtfulness, can provide a cathartic vehicle to address these most perplexing states of human condition. Then again, films that meet a high standard of deliberate artistic care are not always a frequent find.

Clearly, due to the millions of Jewish lives lost at the hands of Nazi murderers, there are many tragic, compelling stories that need to be voiced. Indeed, it is our humanitarian obligation to accurately preserve the records that arrestingly document these incomprehensible injustices -- forgetting such travesties is a crime in and of itself. We must try to understand what can never be fully understood.

This film chroncles the Kindertransport, which placed 10,000 children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia into the arms of British strangers, saving these young people from Nazi extermination. The story shows how their persecution did not end even when they arrived in England. Indeed, in this humanitarian operation, only children could make it to the safe shores of Great Britain, while their parents were kept behind by a complex set of diplomatic rules and immigration laws. Thus, we hear first hand from the youthful survivors, many now grandparents themselves, about their haunting experiences.

The refugee children in the film find themselves in a foreign country where their native language is not spoken, regular communication with their parents trapped in hostile countries is problematic and their religious faiths are strained as well. Accomplished with poetic exactitude, the film brings the audience to understand that freedom from physical jeopardy is not the same as freedom from emotional anguish.

The film effectively explores the complex emotional questions that are raised by Kindertransport's act of mercy. Many of the children have difficulties adjusting to new foster parents, a new culture and new expectations. Equally diffucult, when the war is finally over, those children who are fortunate enough to be reunited with their family have, in many ways, grown into new and different people -- some families were separated for nearly an entire decade.

As the movie progresses, we see that even the "happy endings" of Jewish families re-united were still heart-wrenching stories of tragedy. With great intensity, the viewer comes to realize that the survivalist parental instinct to shepherd one's children to a safe foreign land, perhaps the best option for those parents to ensure their children's physical well-being, can have unspeakable consequences nonetheless. In this way, among many others, Hitler's arms of tyranny brutalized those in every corner of the world.

Brilliantly, the film uses the interviews of the survivors to form a complex web of narratives that build contrasting stories surrounding the Kindertransport. Guided by the thoughtful narration of Judi Dench, the viewer can easily forget he or she is watching a "documentary." While the film is mainly a mix of modern close-up interview shots of the survivors and historical footage from the war, the true mastery of the film is the vivid mental pictures that are created in the minds of the audience.

Moreover, it is the well-edited weaving together of the different survivor stories that makes the movie float off the silver screen and into the mind's eye of the viewer. The pensive script allows space for the audience to contemplate the difficult issues raised by the film, while pushing the audience toward moral outrage at the inherently objectionable qualities of war.

This noble documentary accomplishes a great cinematic feat -- it articulates what cannot be articulated. In many ways, those of us who have not directly experienced the Holocaust can never completely empathize with the horrors involved in being a pawn in WWII. However, "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" brings us one step closer to visceral sympathy for the innocent who were victimized and righteous indignation at these crimes committed against the human race.

"Into the Arms of Strangers" was first released on September 15, 2000, narrated by Judi Dench, directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, and written by Mark Jonathan Harris.

This past Saturday, at the Hopkins Center's Spaulding Auditorium, a special screening of the Academy Award-winning film (winner, Best Documentary Feature) took place. More information on the film can be found at http://www.intothearmsofstrangers.com/ There is an eponymous book available by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer, which compliments the film and is well worth the time it takes to read.