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"Birthplace" is a better film than Claude Lanzmann's much celebrated
Filmmaker Pawel Lozinski is the son of Marcel Lozinski, who made two of my favorite Polish films, 1988's "Witnesses" and the 1993 film "89 mm from Europe."
In "Birthplace," Pawel Lozinski films Henryk Grynberg returning to a Polish shtetl where he survived World War Two with the aid of Polish Catholic peasants.
So far, so familiar. We've seen many such films, from Lanzmann's "Shoah" to Marian Marzynski's "Shtetl" to Menachem Daum's "Hiding and Seeking." These are the Polish-Holocaust version of "white man's burden" films. There is a long pan of Polish countryside. There is lachrymose music. A car full of well-dressed Americans, tall and with good teeth, drives up to a Polish peasant farmhouse deep in the countryside. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. Passing neighbors ask, "What the heck?" Passengers emerge from a car, along with a film crew, thrust their lenses into peasant faces, and demand: "Why didn't you stop the Holocaust?"
"Shoah" and "Shtetl" and "Hiding and Seeking" are all "Us v. Them" movies. All offer the viewer the chance to feel superior to Polish peasants. They did this. Not us. We could not do such an awful thing as commit atrocities in the Holocaust. We are tall and clean; we have good teeth; we have indoor plumbing. They have dirt under their fingernails and work in muck. No wonder they do bad things. No wonder we are ethically, as well as sartorially, superior.
Lanzmann, peacock that he is, carries this to extremes. He does not speak directly to Poles. He uses a translator, and, given that I speak English and a reasonable amount of French and Polish, I can attest that in at least one key instance, his translation is a distortion. Elegant French man. Dirty Polish peasant. Lanzmann does feature one good Pole: the aristocratic Jan Karski.
"Birthplace" is not that movie. It is a much better movie. A deeply moving one.
Henryk Grynberg is not an outsider. He speaks fluent Polish to people he knows and in many ways is like.
There is no them. There is only us. That is the miracle of "Birthplace."
No one is translating. Grynberg is speaking Polish to Polish-speaking people. He lived in their houses, drank their milk. They knew his mother and ate cake at her wedding. They went to school with his relatives, whom they name and describe with intimacy.
The peasants in "Birthplace" are every bit as dirty as the peasants in any of the films mentioned above. They are wearing shoddy, unflattering clothes. One man, who says some very tough things, is wearing a laughably ridiculous hat.
The film takes care of that. It does not turn these badly dressed, dirty, hard working peasants into the very bad them; it does not turn us, the viewers, into a very different us. They are the entire screen. No one shows up and gets all huffy in French silk and talks Fransay at them. No one on screen is counting the seconds till he can get back to his five-star hotel. We are all in this together. The wall is finally torn down. We are them. We are these Polish peasants, because they are the only humans on the landscape. We are given no choice but to identify.
That is the miracle of "Birthplace."
I think that so many rushed so quickly and insistently to hate Polish peasants after Jan Tomasz Gross' book "Neighbors" came out because they needed to distance themselves from the atrocities peasants committed. "I could never do that I could never do that I could never do that." "Birthplace" offers no such comfort. Oh, yes you could. Nothing that is human is foreign to you.
Polish peasants are the world of the film.
There are good people. Deeply, courageously good people. They are ambiguous people. Shall I believe that man? Not? Why not?
There is at least one frighteningly cold man who releases chilling words from a face deeply creased by sun and wind and cold and hard work he could never escape.
There is a man so disturbed and disturbing he is a five-act tragedy, or a crime novel, all to himself.
The good. The terrifying. The depressing. All Polish peasants. Every last one. Just like you. Just like me.
And they all live cheek by jowl, in the same Polish village.
I always object when I read people saying that Poles were worse than the Nazis. I object because it's not true.
Polish peasants in "Birthplace" say that there are people, among their own neighbors, who were worse than the Nazis.
From their mouths, it is a totally different statement.
This is what I hear: many of these people risked their very lives to help Jews. Many. Not one or two righteous, but many.
And, in their own midst, there were people so debased, so heartless, that they would kill a Jew just to be able to steal his cow. And they hated these people. And they remembered their names. They could not do anything about their hate for their evil neighbors under Nazism, or Communism. But someone showed up with a microphone and a camera, and all those memories came alive. And they took action. This film shows them doing exactly that. All Polish peasants. All in one, mutually-dependent, village setting.
The plot of the film follows Henryk Grynberg trying to find out what happened to his father. I will not reveal the ending, because I really do not want to spoil it for you. It's that good. I watched the film in a room full of students and, though I tried, I could not avoid crying audibly at this film's stunning climax.
A Holocaust survivor takes the viewer on his haunting journey back to a small town in Poland, his birthplace, to try to uncover the secrets of his father's and brother's disappearance. Tension mounts through his interviews of villagers, some young, some old, who knew his family. The narrator survived the Holocaust with his mother and eventually made it to the United States, but his brother and father disappeared and obviously did not survive. Determined to learn the truth, the narrator, now a film-maker in the U.S., returns to the village, seeking out people who knew his family. Some greet him warmly, seemingly happy to see that he survived. Others greet him warily, outwardly polite but clearly anxious as to what this American might turn up. Perhaps most chilling is his interview with a (now) elderly peasant farmer whose contempt for Jews remains palpable after decades.
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