Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Good Friday and Easter are almost here, so I want to share this beautiful film (available on DVD) that embodies both of these events so sacred to Christians. It also is a good film for Holocaust Memorial Day: for an annotated list of many other such films check out the soon to be posted April 2014 issue of Visual Parables.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Czech director Karel Kachyna’s film is not a “religious” film, but it definitely is a Good Friday and Easter one that fits well with Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s gospel. During the Nazi era hundreds of thousands of children were among the victims of Hitler’s Holocaust. In the film Tom Courtney plays Antoine Moreau, an apolitical French pantomime artist working in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Once very successful, he has allowed his act to grow stale so that now he is relegated to burlesque theaters and small clubs.
Almost by accident he develops the signature ending of his jumping dog act—his arm rises up seemingly by itself to perform the stiff-armed Nazi salute. He struggles with his other hand to bring it down, but it will not stay lowered, seeming to possess a will of its own. The theater manager is terrified when Moreau first performs the stunt because in the audience are many Nazi officers. However they laugh along with the French customers, but out of ignorance. They think it is just a funny visual joke, whereas the French interpret it as a bold act of resistance, a display of how silly the salute is.
Moreau regains a measure of his popularity throughout the city, but his fame does not protect him when his lover is shot while fleeing from the Gestapo. Unknown to him, she was a member of the underground, but, of course, the Nazis do not believe him. He is given a choice: prison or follow our instructions. He is to go with a group of children to the city of Theresienstadt and stage a play there. Dubbed “The City of the Jews,” this is a model village set up by the Nazis as part of their PR attempt to convince the world that the stories about their mistreatment of the Jews is false Allied propaganda. The play is for the benefit of the International Red Cross inspection team scheduled to tour the village. He is promised a handsome fee and a return ticket, as well as dropped charges.
Reluctantly agreeing, Moreau at first wants just to do his job and return to Paris, but his aloof heart is won over by the children. He also becomes close to Vera (Brigitte Fossey), who is in charge of the children. She wipes away any delusion he might have had about the fate of the residents. Trains leave periodically from the town, their cargo the Jews marked for extermination. The children that he chooses for the production will be spared, at least for a while. Thus, like Oskar Schindler, Moreau selects as many children as he can justify for the production.
He also changes the production, making it a version of “Hansel and Gretel.” When the Red Cross team arrives, there will be no mistaking the symbolism of the witch pushing children wearing bands with the Star of David on their arms being pushed into the oven. Afterward Moreau, in solidarity with the little ones he has come to love, makes a decision similar to that of the famed Dr. Janusz Korczak, the Warsaw Ghetto child expert who, when the Jewish children in his orphanage were being loaded onto a train bound for an extermination cam did some brave and compassionate—and in the eyes of the Germans, foolish. Only, unlike the good doctor, Moreau adds a touch of defiance as his arm once gain raises up, his mock “Heil Hitler” salute bringing one last round of giggles and laughter to the children.
Most of the film is Good Friday—the arrogant Germans viciously subjecting Jews to humiliation, pain, and death—and Moreau himself, self-indulgent and failing at his art at the beginning of the film. Indeed, the film is also a character transformation film, Moreau slowly moving off the island of himself to embrace the innocent under his charge. With Vera and the children he becomes part of a caring community the mission of which is to expose the lies and cruelty of their Nazi captors. He becomes such a part of that community that he is willing to share its fate, so that the last portion of the film is an Easter moment witnessing against the evil of their cruel captors. We see no evidence that Moreau is a card-carrying believer, but I believe that the mime, standing in that line before the throne of God, would be one of the surprised ones.
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April 2014 Visual Parables.