Tuesday, July 15, 2014
iDnes.cz (M. Spáčilová) review*
Lidovky.cz (A. Prokopová) review*
Novinky.cz (V. Míšková) review*
Czech that Film [official site] [2014 line-up at GSFC in Chicago]
About writer Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary] [Amazon.com] [IMDb]
Colette  [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* (directed and screenplay cowritten by Milan Cieslar [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* along with Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]* the author of the novel Colette: Dívka z Antverp (Colette: A Girl from Antwerp) on which the film is based, and Ladislava Chateau [FDB]*) is a Holocaust themed film that played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of 2014 Czech That Film Tour cosponsored by the Czech Diplomatic Mission to the United States.
Perhaps uneven (see even the Czech reviews above) and arguably experimental in various aspects (for instance, the version of the film that was presented at the GSFC was _dubbed_ by European actors in English), the value of the film to American/Western audiences would be two-fold: (1) The film introduces in a new way the contributions of Czech Jewish writer, and Holocaust survivor, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]*[NYT Obit] to American/Western audiences, and (2) the film offers a "small country" perspective (and perhaps a peculiarly Czech one) to the experience of the Holocaust, one which Western and perhaps particularly American audiences would find unfamiliar and perhaps even somewhat unnerving:
For very early in the story at a 1973 New York "first meeting of the parents" dinner of two young first generation Jewish American lovebirds, both children of Holocaust survivors, the father of the future groom _encouraged by his future daughter-in-law_ asks her mother: "So being that I've been where you've been (I'm also a Holocaust survivor) can I ask you ... how did you make it? How did you survive?" Taken aback by the question (the reason why the father of the groom was asked by his future daughter-in-law to broach the question was that her mother _never talked about it_), she answers, "Well, like all of us survived ... by a series of 'little miracles.'" She went on to explain how one time an SS-officer had tried to take her to the side and rape her, and she "pushed him so hard that he fell into the mud." and that seeing what was happening "even the other guards stepped to her defense."
It's immediately clear that the father-of-the-groom was unconvinced but he didn't push the matter further. After dinner though, as he and his son walk home, he tells his son that her story was a lie, perhaps even a noble one, but a lie nonetheless. Why? Because "if she had really defended her honor in that way against that SS officer, she would have almost certainly been shot right then and there."
The father then says goodbye to his son, goes back to his flat, and ... as a writer, spends the rest of the night, inspired to write ... The rest of the story follows:
What follows is the story of two _young_ but in every other aspect, utterly ordinary European Jews, one Czech, from Prague, named Vili, short for Vilhelm (played by Jiří Mádl [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) and the other Belgian, Colette (played by Clémence Thioly [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) from Antwerp. And the two met in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Now, How??? did they even meet? The vast majority of Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately "processed," that is, stripped of their remaining possessions (including of their hair and the clothes on their backs) and then led into the showers where they were gassed-to-death and later cremated. Well, by sheer luck, Vili _was recognized_ ON THE RAILROAD PLATFORM, THERE, IN AUSCHWITZ as he disembarked from the train (from the cattle car that he was in) by a Czech-Jewish friend who he had known from Teresienstadt (another Nazi concentration camp though that one located on Czech soil). THAT FRIEND was able to pull Vili aside from the rest of the arrivals and have him put subsequently on a "work detail" (rather than be sent to be gassed in short order like the vast majority of the other arrivals).
Some months (?) later, when Colette arrived at Auschwitz being "young," she was initially separated from the rest of her family for work (to death...) in a quarry (rather than for immediate gassing), and later, by chance, she caught the eye of a young SS Officer (played by Eric Bouwer [IMDb] [CSFD]*[FDB]*) who simply desired her as a mistress (today, post-1990s-era-Bosnian-conflict, we wouldn'd call her a mistress anymore but rather a sex-slave).
Both Vili and Colette eventually come to be placed in a "sub-Camp" named "Kanada" where their jobs were to "process" the belongings left-over by the Jews (the vast, vast majority) who were simply stripped of everything that they had left when they arrived (including, even the hair on their heads and the clothes on their backs) before being gassed. It is in this little "Niche in Hell" that Vili and Colette (and a small group of other Jews around them) survived.
How? Well ... by being forced to methodically purloin the belongings of those who had already been gassed, they (by luck) came into possession of "currency" (stuff) that they could secret and exchange to extend their lives. For while EVERYONE OF THEM was ALWAYS under the gaze (and quite literally "under the gun") of utterly drunk-with-power SS-guards (and their collaborators) and could be summarily shot AT ANYTIME, BY ANYONE OF THEM if anyone-of-them suspected that they might be "stealing," THESE GUARDS THEMSELVES BENEFITED FROM THE PETTY THEFTS OF THEIR PRISONERS. Why?? Because all the possessions that Vili and Colette and the others "processing" the belongings of the arriving Jews discovered and immediately turned-over to their Nazi overseers "went to the Reich." HOWEVER, if Vili found a tin-of-meat (or even an apple or orange) stashed in a bottom of a suitcase, or, more significantly, Colette found _a piece of jewelry_ THAT HAD BEEN SOWN INTO THE HEM of a piece of clothing by its previous owner AND THEY DECIDED TO QUICKLY HIDE THE DISCOVERED ITEM FROM THE IMMEDIATE VIEW OF THE GUARDS, THEN THIS ITEM (be it a tin of meat, a flask of schnaps or vodka ... or a jewel) BECAME SOMETHING THAT ONE COULD USE TO TRADE WITH OTHERS (with other prisoners AND WITH THE GUARDS) FOR ... FAVORS. Since the guards, stood "at the top of the food chain" in the Camp, they did not mind this kind of petty corruption taking place, BECAUSE THEY COULD TAKE THIS UNDECLARED STUFF HOME WITH THEM (out of the Camp). Everything that was "officially found" WENT "TO THE REICH." The items that were _initially secreted-away/stolen by the prisoners_ eventually "floated up" to the Guards, who then were able to take the stuff out of the Camp FOR THEIR OWN (STILL PETTY ... but it probably ADDED UP... ) ENRICHMENT.
This then became the world / "economy" in which Vili and Colette found themselves in (and even "fell in love" in). And they do find that EVEN IN HELL, JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING, even tantalizingly, the _possibility_ of eventual freedom (if one was just able to figure out who to bribe, with how much, at what time...) WAS "FOR SALE."
Honestly folks, I get this. I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I do. It's a "small country" approach to survival. I know that "Big countries" -- the Russians, the Americans, heck even the Germans / Brits prefer "sweeping epics" with "cowboys" (or "cossacks"), or even "Lawrence of Arabia" on horses, fighting off Evildoers as "partisans" (like the Bielski brothers of Beolorussia, whose actual, though rare, exploits have been made into the Hollywood film Defiance ) and so forth. But those are stories of the Powerful.
Presented here, quite sincerely, is a "small country solution" for survival: "What do I have to sell? What can I get a hold of to sell? Where can I hide? How I can be(come) 'valuable' in some way until the storm blows over?"
As such, unnerving as this story may be, I do believe that it does contribute to the memory of the Holocaust, and it is a story written by someone, Arnošt Lustig [en.wikip] [cz.wikip]* [NYT Obituary], who really was there.
* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.
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