Vol 0, No 22
22 February 1998
K I N O E Y E:|
Hiding from Good and Evil
Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's The Island on Bird Street
Andrew J Horton
Some of the most poignant and moving stories from the years of World War II are those of how simple honest people, in the midst of all the terror and brutality, managed to cling on to moral decency, hope and faith in humanity. Following on in this much-loved vein, the Danish director of children's films Soren Kragh-Jacobsen has created The Island on Bird Street (UK, Germany, Denmark, Norway, 1997), based on an autobiographical novel about a young Jewish boy surviving against the odds.
Alex lives with his father Stefan and his Uncle Boruch in the Warsaw ghetto (recreated atmospherically with on-location filming in Wroclaw). Like any lad of his age, Alex can't quite remove the need for fun and games from his life. Playing usually centres around a derelict tenement block located on Bird Street, and he is always with his pet mouse.
His elders do not approve of his Bird Street adventures and not just because of the dangers of falling masonry. Alex, being incapable of doing hard labour, lives under the threat of being carted off to a concentration camp if he doesn't stay permanently hidden out of sight. After skilfully dodging the Germans though a number of raids on the ghetto, the whole family is caught in one final round-up to close the ghetto down. A pre-arranged plan to escape is bodged and Boruch is killed and Stefan caught, but Alex makes it back to his island.
It all turns nasty
Once the ghetto is closed down and shut off, its previous intimacy is turned to life and death rivalry as the last few stragglers missed by the Germans battle it out for food, water and a safe hiding place. Even his beloved mouse dies, although I should point out, in case sensitive Kinoeye readers are concerned, that the film's closing credits make it clear that no animals were harmed in the film's production.
Alex is slow to adapt to his new environment, but eventually he makes his home in an eyrie-like hide-out with its own water supply. From there he can look out across to the Polish side of the city, at everyday life, at people coming and going as if life was normal, and at a young Polish girl of about his age.
Alex, through two Poles whose life he saves, manages to get to the Polish side and meet the girl he watches from afar. The girl offers to help him and persuades her mother to take Alex with them when they move to the relative safety of the countryside. Alex, though, refuses. Despite the long months which have passed, he still believes his father will come back and, as previously planned, meet him at Bird Street.
The Island on Bird Street, although a well-executed film in technical terms with a convincing performance from its twelve-year-old lead actor Jordan Kiziuk, stretches the bounds of credibility beyond their breaking point. My ire is particularly directed to one of the worst cinematic cliches: the depiction of a character who, in a life-threatening situation has more concern with saving their pet than their own skin.
He then chooses to wait in the midst of danger when he has the opportunity to escape to a safer place, all for his belief that his father has not, despite all signs to the contrary, been shot by the Germans. I'm all for sentimentality, but come on! It's almost impossible to watch these scenes without feeling that Alex is a living suspension of the rules of Darwinian natural selection and that, in reality, anyone attempting to put such noble sensitivity into practice would quickly meet with a nasty end.
The Island on Bird Street is not billed as a children's film, like many of Kragh-Jacobsen's earlier works. It is instead "a film for everybody, with a child in the lead." I certainly have no doubt in mind about the "child in the lead" part of that. However, the film's simplistic vision of an enduring good which always wins and an evil which can only consume other evil makes it an unlikely choice of a film for everybody and perhaps even for anybody.
In this context, I find it particularly interesting to note that Uri Orlev's novel, on which the film was based, won the Hans Christian Andersen award. Rather than being an honour, this to me is more of a satirical comment on the story's faults. Do we really want World War II reduced to a fluffy fairy-tale in which good appears to unfailingly triumph just because of its essential goodness? It didn't, and we should never lose sight of that.
My suspicion is that the story's interest in depicting the good father's victory over evil has less to do with considerations of the audience and more to do with the personal agenda of the author. The book is supposedly autobiographical and yet Orlev's life, as told on the Berlin Film Festival website, is a rather different tale. Orlev was, indeed, in the Warsaw ghetto, but the site informs us his father "left him", rather than being taken away.
What's more, in real life, Orlev did agree to be hidden by a Polish family and unlike the romanticised version of his story, he, in fact, was unable to escape detection by the Germans and was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. By good fortune, he was able to survive for two years until the US army liberated the train which was carrying him on from Belsen to an unknown destination.
Autobiography as therapy
It would certainly be interesting to know more about Orlev and his relationship with his father, particularly the exact nature of what the Berlin Film Festival website implies was an abandonment of the young Orlev. The Island on Bird Street paints a picture of the father he lost and, perhaps, never even had - a father who didn't return to him, appearing through a stream of golden sunbeams softened by the dusty air.
The film comes over as a yearning for a father that can be adored and is worth waiting for, rather than one who one day is there no longer, leaving you to fend for yourself in the middle of the twentieth century's worst nightmare. The Island on Bird Street, in this light emerges, as Orlev's attempt to paint over the past rather than reconcile himself with it and as such would seem to be some form of therapy for the author.
We all like to be seduced and even though we know that good does not always triumph over evil, we still like to be reminded that sometimes it does. The Island on Bird Street, however, takes this premise much too far. Its deification of the father figure and his supremacy over a youthful romance makes the film sickly stuff which is hard to stomach.
The film's message is that Alex survives the war because he is good and loyal to this over-inflated father and his father is good to him. We should never forget that, in reality, those who survived this foul war did so because they were plain lucky and that the good died along with the evil. Anyone who tells you otherwise is peddling fairy-tales for children or, worse still, for themselves.
Andrew J Horton, 22 February 1999
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