Friday, January 16, 2015

In THE TOUCH OF AN ANGEL Marek Tomasz Pawlowski makes the Holocaust magical...

...and, yes, that is problematic. In this week's Holocaust documentary -- ah, they just keep on a-comin' -- we meet and listen to the, ummm, I don't want to say "ramblings," exactly, but I am not certain that I'd call the old man who proves the tale-teller and center of this new film anything like a "reliable narrator." What he tells us is pretty interesting, all right, but it is also bizarre and confusing at times, not to mention offering up angels as a help to would-be Holocaust victims. Granted our fellow, Henryk Schönker, is very old now, with so many of the problems that beset us seniors. But some of what he explains in THE TOUCH OF AN ANGEL is both helped and sometimes hindered by the work of filmmaker Marek Tomasz Pawlowski (shown below). All told, the documentary seems to be memory coupled to the kind of imagination in which facts are not necessarily to be prized above fantasy and the chance for a good story.

"For 70 years, I couldn't face my past," Henryk, shown below, explains at the movie's outset, and then goes on to let us see what kind of past this was. It takes place initially in Oświęcim, Poland (later to be more memorably named Auschwitz by the Nazis), where Henryk's father was chairman of the Jewish community, and whose task it was -- at the behest of the German military authorities -- to organize the Bureau of Emigration of Jews to Palestine. Whether this "immigration" was ever a genuine possibility in the minds of the Germans is questionable. In any case, there were no countries willing at this time (1939) to take in the soon-to-be-decimated Jewish population.

Mr. Pawlowski uses quite an array of visual tropes and tricks to keep us focused on Schönker's story, and for the most part these are a help. They include everything from stop-motion and animation to placing into archival photos the images of actual actors who then move slightly and seem to come to their own odd life. The filmmaker also resorts to the increasingly used "re-creations" of events, as below, to tell his story.

The film is but one hour long, which seems just as well, due to its increasing toll on our patience, for Henryk's tales grow more bizarre and confused as events tumble over each other.  From place to place, concentration camp to concentration camp, his family moves, keeping but a step or two ahead of the worst of it.

At times, Henryk is separated from his parents and sister and then all of a sudden he's back with them. How, why and what happened is left mostly in the lurch. But we do hear about the "angel" (above) who helped with the escape at one point, as well as of a boy they called "Stork," who was apparently blessed with prescience regarding the Nazi's plan and who would survive it. Stuff like this seems more like an old man's "survivor guilt" making itself felt via tall tales than any real Holocaust history, and Pawlowski never intrudes to ask a question or two that might clarify or maybe probe a bit more deeply.

We do get a thoughtful and moving tale of a relative whose dolls (above) stand in for her own little life, as well as an even more interesting tale of the actor (performed by a more recent actor, below) who appeared in the noted film, Nosferatu, and how his own Holocaust story played out.

Overall, the hour passes easily enough, as Henryk, remembers, recites and wipes his eyes a lot. Well, memory for us aged is often like that. The movie is finally a kind of thank-you to any of those who helped the Polish Jews, as well as a condemnation of the so-called "civilized world" for refusing to help. The latter is a legitimate complaint. But I wouldn't want to vouch for Henryk's fractured story as equally legit. (That's the actor version of him as a child, below.)

The Touch of an Angel -- perhaps this is supposed to be the Holocaust equivalent of that popular and schlocky television series from 1994-2003, Touched by an Angel? -- opened today, Friday, January 16, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Town Center 5.

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