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Saving young innocents from the Holocaust
'Into the Arms of Strangers' recounts greatest act of love
(CNN) -- "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories from the Kindertransport" is a compelling documentary about the attempt to save Europe's most innocent citizens.
In 1938, when the ghastly scope of Adolf Hitler's evil was finally coming into focus, the people of England accepted 10,000 Eastern European Jewish children into their homes. Director Mark Jonathan Harris (who also shot the Oscar-winning 1997 Holocaust documentary, "The Long Way Home") interviews the survivors, who now, of course, are aging men and women. Their tearful recollections of the event are consistently compelling, their memories, disturbing.
At the time of their railway evacuation, not all of them understood why they were being sent to foster homes in distant countries. As adults, they recognize that this perceived abandonment by their parents was really a selfless act of love.
The movie works best when Harris simply lets people talk. Early sequences that establish the children's carefree, pre-Nazi lives feel over-pronounced. It makes sense that these men and women would remember only the sweetest, most life-affirming aspects of their brief family existences.
But Harris' carefully applied children's choruses and archival footage of kids dancing and playing in the streets is too candy-coated to serve as a prelude to very real tragedy. Audience manipulation is the last thing a movie like this needs; unadorned truth, after all, is the very reason for making it.
'Final solution' brought to life
Like any documentary on the Holocaust, the litany of horrors never ceases. Your enjoyment (that's probably not the right word for it) of "Into the Arms of Strangers" will depend solely on your ability to withstand their onslaught.
We're told that the victimization began in subtle ways. One woman says she recognized that she was being ostracized for her Jewishness when her parents threw her an elaborate birthday party and none of the neighborhood children showed up to celebrate. She recalls the event with a sense of sad resignation, as if she quit trying to understand it many, many years ago.
The film vividly portrays the steady escalation of Hitler's final solution.
At one point, Harris inserts rare color footage of a busy German street after "the Jewish problem" had become a national obsession. Shop windows have been smashed, and anti-Semitic graffiti is scrawled on the buildings. The usual black-and-white shots of these events, though hugely troubling, somehow distance you from reality. It's a powerful experience to see color images of handsome men and women as they casually stroll past makeshift monuments to hatred. Your mind grasps for a moment because the film strips away your most important defense mechanism. Suddenly, what was previously filed away in your head under "newsreel" becomes appallingly real.
The most effective moments, as you might imagine, come when subjects recall the day their weeping parents forced them onto evacuation trains. One woman says that her father, who doted on her endlessly, couldn't bear to see her leave, pulling her from the window of the train as it exited the station and injuring her in the process. Later, she and her family were sent to a concentration camp. The woman says that she could never, ever suggest to her father that she might have been saved from such a fate if he hadn't grabbed for her. His love, far from protecting her, thrust her into a living nightmare.
That kind of story sticks with you but, unfortunately, your mind grows numb after a while. Though it's interesting to hear how the children adjusted while living with strangers (some of whom turned out to be less than benevolent), you get the idea very quickly. The details of their safe harbor simply aren't as gripping as their escape.
It's difficult to write or say anything negative about this type of film. Of course these stories need to be told ... again and again, if that's what it takes for people to recognize what happened.
As recorded history, "Into the Arms of Strangers," is indispensable. As a piece of documentary filmmaking, it's no more inventive than scads of talking-head missives that appear on cable TV every evening. When something this overtly tragic moves you, are you responding to the director's approach to the stories, or only to the stories themselves?
That's a question that Academy voters need to consider before Harris walks off with another Oscar.
"Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" is less difficult to watch than some Holocaust documentaries, if only because it doesn't focus on the very visual hell of the concentration camps. The psychological hell, however, is formidable. Not Rated. 115 minutes.
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories from the Kindertransport
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