Korczak was like the Polish Dr. Seuss, Dr. Spock, and Father Flanagan combined. He was born Henryk Goldszmit—a name that
would prove fatal during the National Socialist occupation. Master Polish director Andrzej Wajda became
one of his first filmmaking countrymen to forthrightly address the Holocaust,
following the brave example of his protégé and frequent screenwriter Agnieszka
Holland with 1990’s Korczak (trailer here), which is now
available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics.
devoted his life to children. He was a
popular children’s author and radio broadcaster, whose show was rather
summarily canceled in the late thirties for sadly obvious reasons. Though removed from the public eye, Korczak
continued to serve his beloved children as the benevolent headmaster of a
progressive orphanage. A gentle
gentleman by nature, Korczak loyally served as a doctor in the Polish Army, but
nobody would have mistaken him for a military man. Yet, as the Germens marched through the
streets, he refused to relinquish his uniform when so many others did. As viewers soon see, Korczak always did
things the honorable way—the hard way.
of the agony of Korczak is watching
the good doctor and his associates refusing to believe the situation is as bad
as viewers know it is. Of course, the
scale and systemization of the National Socialist death machine still remain
hard to process. Yet, by 1942, enough
escapees had sent word back to the ghetto that most of the involuntary residents
would have a general idea what to expect from the concentration camps. Nonetheless, despite offers of counterfeit
papers, Dr. Korczak refuses to leave his children. He had no use for one fake passport. He would need over two hundred.
have identified Korczak as a
significant inspiration for Spielberg’s Schindler’s
List. Shrewdly, the DVD cover
prominently displays his unqualified endorsement. While both films profile heroic individuals, Korczak has absolutely no sentimental
uplift to placate shallower viewers. It
ends as it ended. Nonetheless, Wajda, again
filming a Holland screenplay, ventures into more expressionistic territory in
his final scene, perhaps representing idyllic afterlife not so strongly defined
in the Judaic tradition Korczak never closely identified with (a stylistic
decision Wajda took some heat for at the time of its initial release).
Pszoniak gives one of the defining performances of the immediate post-Communist
era. Yes, the Korczak viewers initially
meet seems impossibly kind and virtuous.
Yet, as the doctor endures pain and humiliation for the sakes of his
charges, Pszniak makes his anguish vividly clear. Being a saint is trying burden.
Korczak also boasts a
talented ensemble cast of pre-teen actors.
Their complex relationships with each other feel very real and
human. Conversely, those of Korczak’s
colleagues are not as well established.
Still, Ewa Dalkowska has some touching moments as Stefa Wilczynska, a
former Korczak alumnus, who returned from the safety of “Palestine” to assist
the doctor and his children during their hour of need.
Robby Müller’s black-and-white cinematography is
absolutely arresting. Its influence on Schindler is unmistakable. Despite the deliberate lack of on-screen
horrors, it is a draining film to watch.
It is also exactly the sort of story that would have been impossible to depict
under the recently deposed Communist regime, which had steadfastly relegated
the Holocaust to the Orwellian memory hole.
Along with his visceral Katyn,
Korczak represents an important burst
of creative truth telling from Wajda and Holland. Highly recommended, it is now on-sale at all
major online retailers.
Labels: Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Wajda, DVD, Holocaust Cinema, Janusz Korczak, Polish Films