Here’s a fantastic shot from Agnieszka Holland‘s beautifully realized Europa, Europa, one of my favorite films. Holland was a friend of the late Krysztoph Kieslowski, another of my all time favorite directors, and they shared a lot of collaborators. On this film, Holland uses Kieslowski’s go-to composer Zbigniew Preisner (who wrote the unforgettable scores for Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique, Blue, and Red, among many others – check this out) as well as a very young Julie Delpy, who would later star in Kieslowski’s White (the one film of the Three Color trilogy that nobody seems to care for.)
But back to this stunning scene. This moment has more to do with performance and editorial choice than camera work, but it’s no less powerful. As set up, Marco Hoffschneider plays Solly, a jewish teen in WWII Germany who is forced to pretend he’s a non-jewish German, which winds him up in a Hitler Youth school (the film’s based on the true life story of Solomon Perel). At the school, he’s constantly at risk of being discovered (for one, he’s circumcised) and in this scene, we are sure the jig is up. It’s an incredible shot of a heart-breaking performance, and it really speaks to the whole tension of the film – Solly’s fear of being discovered which resonates constantly across this innocent boy’s sweet, though worry-worn face. Holland is expert in letting tension bubble up through vividly authentic character moments.
Agnieszka Holland lets it play
In this scene, the teacher is lecturing on how to recognize a jew, and demonstrates how to measure skull and facial features to prove racial purity, when he calls our hero up as example – but of what we don’t know. Director Holland maximizes the suspense — and the heart-wrenching terror of this young man realizing that his life is probably over — by showing only his face for a prolonged period as the horror grows more and more evident in his eyes, and then turns into the saddest resignation. Devastating. Note the fantastic sound design of the clanking instruments off-screen after each measurement. Brilliant.
The shot begins at 3:00, but you really must watch the whole scene.
As a bonus here is a great video interview with director Agnieszka Holland which she did for the DGA (Directors Guild of America)’s visual archive project (of the three, it’s the one on the far right). She has some fascinating things to say about the structure of Europa, Europa, and how trimming 45 minutes helped increase the film’s comic energy (which certainly applies to the above scene’s button) and improved the dramatic power and pacing.