Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 22
22 February 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Rattling The Skeleton In Europe's Closet
Agnieszka Holland's Bittere Ernte

Andrew J Horton

Hardened cynics may find Island on Bird Street (see accompanying article) a little too much of a strain on their fragile abilities to suspend disbelief. That being the case, Agnieszka Holland's Bittere Ernte (Angry Harvest, Germany, 1985) is definitely a film to search out instead. Holland refuses to romanticise the Holocaust and creates a disturbing vision of the motives which led people to shelter escaping Jews.

Bittere Ernte, like Kragh-Jacobsen's film, ends with its protagonist, Leon, bathed in sunlight and adulation. With the War over, he sits on his front doorstep, looking alternately at his attractive young wife, the blazing sun and the letter from America in his hand thanking him for helping to save two Jews from recapture by the Nazis. Believe it or not, though, this is not a happy ending - far from it. The calm and beauty that surrounds Leon only serves to contrast with his guilt about the murky events which have led to this superficially idyllic scene.

Anti-hero and non-hero

With his brother in a concentration camp, Leon Wolny (Armin Mueller-Stahl) starts the film by using his family connections to help him move from occupied Poland to Germany proper. Leon is a moral man, or so he thinks, of lowly stock, although he pretends his father was more than he actually was. A nervous and unfulfilled man, Leon knows he is looking for love in his life, or at the very least, sex. The only immediate prospect of marriage, however, is an overweight woman in the parish whom he finds simply repulsive.

Then one day, he takes pity on a Jewess, Rosa, who has jumped from the cattle train which is transporting her, presumably, to an ominous fate. At enormous risk to himself, he hides her in his cellar. The act of kindness soon becomes twisted into exploitation. Leon keeps Rosa like a slave, demands her love, both physical and soulful and orders her every movement. When she believes her husband is alive, he is happy to help, but by the time he comes to realise that her suspicions are correct, his obsession with her has set in so much that he hides the truth from her.

If this wasn't reprehensible enough, he ducks a dangerous mission given to him by the Polish resistance and gives it to his podgy admirer, who is so ill-suited to the task that she is captured and killed. The list of infamy goes on, and all of it Leon slides effortlessly into, such is the man's weakness and susceptibility. Leon never sees himself in this light though, and he places himself much higher than the Poles around him who actively collaborate with the Germans.

His view doesn't change until the prospect of an advantageous marriage appears, and Leon decides to pack Rosa off to a secret hiding place, for which he must pay dearly. The tragic chain of events that ensues brings Leon face to face with the morally repugnant nature of his actions. But by then it is too late. The war is over, the sun is shining and a beautiful young couple in America are falsely hailing him as a hero, when in fact he knows he will be damned for what he has done.

A bitter pill to swallow

Bittere Ernte is now rarely shown in Europe. The director of the Festival, Judy Ironside, was so determined to have the film as part of the season, however, she even had it printed in the programmes before she had managed to trace a copy of the film with English subtitles. It's unavailability is indeed a strange fate.

The film is by an internationally famous director, was nominated for an Oscar, and the leading actors are both well-respected. Much of the film's plunge into obscurity is probably to do with the extremity of its vision. Bittere Ernte simply does not make comfortable viewing.

It destroys the prevailing wisdom of the last fifty years which neatly divided people into two categories: those who supported Nazism and those who opposed it. Holland, however, depicts a vast third category of people and challenges our notions of how many people really fit the black and white stereotypes which post-war culture has been so keen on propagating. People in her third category by no means support fascism, but their attempts to live safely under it bring them into an arena of dubious actions.

There even seems to be a certain desperation in this tendency to polarise peoples attitudes to Nazism. If, after all, we don't subscribe to it, what sort of moral mess would we be left with. Somehow it seems far safer to admit the Leon Wolnys into the pantheon of wartime heroes than to lay open the actions of millions of people in this shady third category to judgement.

Selfish charity

Some people may object to this way of looking at the war, particularly in the scenes where Christians helping Jews to evade the Nazis are depicted as only being interested in material profit they might gain in return for the risks they take. Doubtless there are many instances of Jews being hidden for genuinely selfless and moral reasons.

Equally doubtless is the fact that in many cases Holland's picture is just as accurate and nobody can now really say which was the more prevalent motivating factor. The importance though of Bittere Ernte is that it provides a counterweight to the vast excess of accounts which, like Island on Bird Street, choose to divide those caught up in World War II into the righteous and the damned.

In this respect, Bittere Ernte was rather ahead of its time. Over a decade later, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) showed how our view of where the line was between those who collaborated and those who didn't is in urgent need of reassessment.

Not even the benefit of an extra ten years removal from the War helped the book's message, and it raised a storm of controversy and anger. This would indicate that Germany, which has generally made every effort to confront the truth of the Holocaust, is still not strong enough to face the true horror of its past.

If that is true for Germany, it is all the more true for countries like Agnieszka Holland's native Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Hungary. Sooner or later though, these countries are all bound to find they have some exceedingly nasty skeletons lurking in their closet. Not until Europe has come to grips with its past is Bittere Ernte likely to have any chance of being evaluated objectively.

Andrew J Horton, 22 February 1999

Further Surfing

For once, there are lots of relevant sites in English to choose from, although, admittedly few of the deal with Bittere Ernte directly. There are more general profiles of Holland than it is constructive to mention. The best, in my view, is run by Sergiusz Swiderski and appears in Polish and English. Speaking Polish, though, will help you comprehend a larger area of this really quite extensive site, particularly when it comes to the incredible range of reviews, articles and interviews which are posted up. Three reviews of Bittere Ernte are included, two in Polish and one in English.

TNT television's site Roughcut, has an interview with Holland which mainly centres on her film Washington Square. Hollywood Online has several interviews from the same period, which can be downloaded.



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