With “Into the Arms of Darkness,” a splendid follow-up to his Oscar-winning documentary, “The Long Way Home,” writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris adds another significant panel to the growing body of films about the Holocaust.
Heartbreaking yet truly inspirational, new docu chronicles the historically unparalleled rescue mission, known as the Kindertransport, in which Britain opened its doors to over 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia during WWII. Warner release should do well in urban centers, but an extra effort will be needed to promote this informative, often revelatory film in other situations. Produced in cooperation with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., docu also reps very suitable material for modern history courses in high schools, colleges and other educational institutions.
If “The Long Way Home” centered on the torturous and humiliating plight of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust, “Into the Arms of Strangers” chronicles an earlier, desperately painful decade, roughly from 1938 to post-WWII, during which many Jewish families were forced to separate, with some able to send their children to safety in England.
The canvas of “Arms” is much broader than Harris’ former docu, dealing with such issues as love and loss, the subjectivity of memory, and, above all, the very definition of what constitutes a family, or more specifically, the intricate distinction between biological and sociological foundations of kinship.
Realizing that the strength of their work lies in the emotional impact of the stories themselves — the testimonies of children survivors, their parents and rescuers — the filmmakers rely unabashedly on lengthy interviews, allowing the participants to face the camera directly, with pain, courage and dignity. Ultimately, the essence of these astonishing tales conveys hope of the most human kind, emphasizing the vitality and resolve of children.
After Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitic decrees isolated the Jews of Germany and Austria. Many parents, unable to escape themselves, were forced to make the agonizing decision of sending their children away. Under specific regulations, the Nazi policy of forced emigration allowed for this painful opportunity. Each child was allowed to take one suitcase and one rucksack, the contents of which were rigidly restricted.
The departure of the first train from Vienna took place in December 1938. Some of the most touching stories concern the preparations for the split and the heartbreaking farewells at the train station. One woman recalls how her father couldn’t let go of her hand and actually pulled her out of the train’s window. The irony of this situation is that there were other separations for her, and eventually she ended up in a concentration camp, which she miraculously survived.
Thinking they were going on an adventure, some of the children were excited by the journey. Others were devastated, feeling abandoned and realized they may never see their parents again.
Basically, what the children were asked is no less than become mature adults at a very young age, as Eva Hayman recalls: “I ceased to be a child when I boarded the train in Prague.” Hayman was separated from her elders for “only six years out of a long life, but those six years affected me the rest of my life.”
Docu gets more universally significant and thematically rich in its second half, which recounts the children’s life in England, where they arrived without knowing a word of the language, anxiously waiting at train stations to be adopted by foster parents; some landed in orphanages.
As expected, there’s great variability in experiences, specifically in the issues of how the different cultures, languages and social classes impinged on the kids’ upbringings. Some embraced their foster families and new lifestyles right away, fully enjoying freedom after long oppression. But others, like Lore Segal, felt that “none of the foster parents with whom I stayed, and there were five of them, could stand me for very long.”
The last — and strongest — reel relates the life of Kurt Fuchel, from his journey all the way through his reunion with his biological parents in Paris after the war. Through this extraordinary story, three perspectives are exposed: Kurt’s, his foster mother’s and that of his real parents.
Candid and straightforward, Kurt claims that initially, upon learning that his parents had survived, he was reluctant to see them. Equally painful was the experience for Kurt’s British parents who, after raising him for years, had to send him back to his biological family.
Though their memories are fresh, the survivors, who are now in the late 60s and 70s, still struggle with the legacy of the Kindertransport. Amazingly, most of them have channeled their pain into productive lives. Like the most vigorous nonfiction works, “Into the Arms” forces each viewer to take a moral stance re: what you would do as a parent in this situation, and how you would feel if you were the child who is sent away.
Eloquent as Judi Dench’s narration is, it’s a bit obtrusive in the first part. But in later sequences, the voice-over is kept to a minimum, allowing the heroic survivors to occupy centerstage and expose their psyches and souls in their own direct language.