Saturday, October 4, 2014

Separation and Deliverance: Revisiting Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)

The horror of the Holocaust and the fate of its survivors has been depicted from just about every conceivable perspective, but Mark Jonathan Harris's Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000) found another story seldom heard. Harris had already been acclaimed previously for The Long Way Home (1997), which depicted the flight of Jewish refugees and how it lead to the state of Israel, but here he examines the fate of the children who were separated from their parents and sent into exile during the war, in many cases forever. For nine months, just before the Second World War, Britain organized an extraordinary mission of mercy. It transported and opened its doors to more than 10,000 Jewish and other children from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The children – or Kinder, as they came to be known – were placed in foster homes in the hope they would be reunited with their parents. Many of the children never saw their folks again. Amassing some stunning archival footage, Harris interviewed dozens of surviving Kinder where, now nearing the end of their lives, they finally got a chance to tell their story. In one scene, a woman recounts the moment she was torn from her mother at the train station, while another describes the dislocating estrangement of living in a foreign country and not knowing the language or customs. Into the Arms of Strangers provides numerous epiphanies that reverberate such as the story of the child who is questioned about his lofty position, because he owns a violin, but then surprises and moves his inquisitors by playing an impeccable version of "God Save the King."

All through Into the Arms of Strangers, Harris reminds us that history is not simply a collection of facts that are safely fixed in the past because he shows us how, for the surviving Kinder, the past becomes a living presence. Harris, who is also a novelist, uses archival footage with an acute sense of narrative. In most documentaries, archival images and footage are often deployed unimaginatively to either prove certain facts or to provide segues to the next scene. But Harris treats these moments as dramatic scenes in a billowing tale. Sometimes with his approach, the suspense can come with a delicate chill, such as when one survivor describes how Germany changed overnight when Hitler took power. Harris inserts unfamiliar footage of a German street filled with Nazi flags and patrolled by soldiers in jackboots. By drawing on rare scenes of the familiar, he brings those fixed moments back to life so that they once again have an urgency in the present – as in the burning of a synagogue on Kristallnacht, which was the first officially sanctioned Nazi pogrom, while people watch helplessly from a window ledge.

The most original aspect of the picture, though, lies in the reversal of the usual notion that parents usually sacrifice everything for their children. Here we watch surviving Kinder talk, as adults, about childhoods filled with desperate attempts of them trying to save their parents. One woman describes going from door to door trying to find work for her mother and father so they could join her in England. Into the Arms of Strangers draws on the pain of separation, the relief of surviving, and then the deliverance of a home. But the picture not only refuses to turn sentimental in the face of harrowing heartbreak, the narration by Judi Dench is informative, not intrusive, and Lee Holdridge's quietly effective score never once drowns out the material.

Into the Arms of Strangers also doesn't offer facile happy endings. For instance, one of the more unpredictable moments focuses on a boy who manages to find a real home with his British adoptive family. When he is finally reunited with his folks, who survived the Holocaust, he now feels disconnected from them as if they never were his true parents. Harris reminds us in this poignantly stirring documentary that just because you survive doesn't mean you are spared the fate of continuing to feel like a stranger.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.    

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kevin. I have been writing a blog for about a year and a half about the Holocaust. Last year my husband and I traveled to Eastern Europe to visit some of the sites. My blog is about this trip as well as an on-going narrative about the history and conditions related to the Holocaust itself. The site is All the best, Brenda Doyle