German filmmaker Michael verhoeven returns to the subject of the Holocaust in his latest outing, “My Mother’s Courage.” Based on writer George Tabori’s recollection of his Jewish mother’s plight in Nazi-held Budapest of 1944, it’s an odd vignette of the war in which fate and fancy overcome the usual grim landscape. But, lacking a searing statement, the simple anecdote is apt to be too airy to attract major theatrical interest. It seems best suited to the intimacy of the small screen.
In its simplest sense, the picture is one day in the life of Elsa Tabori (Pauline Collins). A woman who’s boundlessly chipper, she remains confident her husband, a newspaper editor, will be released from prison. Her sons have escaped from Hungary to London and, apart from the yellow star of David on her dress, the city where she shops and keeps a watchful eye on her asthmatic sister is unchanged from her youth.
On this particular bright spring day, however, she’s detained by two old neighbors and told she is among the Jews to be deported to some unknown destination. She’s put on a streetcar and, following a foul-up, arrives at the railroad station to be carted away.
But the logical are and oft-told tragic scenario do not occur, and both the original author and filmmaker are intrigued by the multilayered ironies that conspired to keep the woman from a ride to certain death.
It was a glitch in the normal scheme of things, a happy snafu but hardly a telling incident with profound implications. Elsa Tabori became a hero virtually by default. In the context of the Holocaust, it seems too slight and arbitrary an episode to be related on such a grand scale.
Verhoeven is not unmindful of the story’s bizarre quality and employs a number of Brechtian devices to that end. George Tabori pops up in contemporary and historical Hungary as a commentator. He relates what we are to see and injects lighter elements whenever the tale appears to be headed toward something more emotional.
Pic was filmed simultaneously in English and Hungarian (the former version was screened at its Toronto bow). But the English dialogue diminishes the drama’s impact because it’s jarring and distracting within the context of the carefully re-created period setting (filmed in contemporary Prague).
Collins captures the blithe naivete of the woman but has little else to play; the character seems unchanged by her experience. The real standout is Ulrich Tukur as a Nazi officer saddled with the job of supervising the deportation, yet aware that it is morally unfathomable. A tale from his youth related to Elsa suggests his story would have been the more interesting one to film.