A film of great pictorial beauty, “Why Wasn’t He There?” is a major contribution to the cinematic literature about childhood and the Holocaust. Set in Hungary during World War II, riveting tale focuses on the coming of age of a Jewish girl. Subtle, contemplative, stylized picture should be embraced by film festivals and arthouse audiences.
The protagonist of this epic film is Eva, a 13-year-old who lives in the countryside with her extended family. Narrating from her diary, Eva begins with the astute observation that she didn’t get her customary birthday party because her grandmother felt that “we don’t need Jewish kids showing off when our country is bleeding.” Writer-director Andras Jeles uses Eva’s point of view to relate the shattering events that took place in Hungary during the war. Story is of a rich Jewish family whose life is devastated when the Nazis invade and the Jews are sent to labor and, later, concentration camps.
At first innocent of the changing political setting, Eva tries to live a normal, routine life. But she is forced into rapid maturation as soon as some of her family members are arrested and others are obliged to wear the Yellow Star. The crucial scene in which her bicycle is confiscated provides a turning point and one of the film’s most ravishing images.
Structure is episodic, unfolding as a series of bittersweet, at times humorous, tableaux of family life. Avoiding melodramatic treatment, Jeles’ greatest achievement is in making a stylized, somehow detached film that doesn’t lose the immediate relevance of its message.
This quiet, delicate story takes the form of a surreal dream that turns into a haunting nightmare. Tibor Mathe’s expressionistic cinematography facilitates this transition by using both b&w and color imagery.
The viewer’s knowledge of the Holocaust only adds to the emotional experience of “Why Wasn’t He There?,” a landmark film that captures the zeitgeist of the era in a vivid and most arresting manner.