Home Video Hovel- Korczak, by Kyle Anderson
Everyone is made to suffer during wartime, but none more tragically than children, who are, to the ways of such things, innocent. During the holocaust, Jewish children were treated no differently than their grown counterparts by the Nazis, who routinely beat them, mistreated and malnourished them, and eventually sent many thousands to their death. Not everyone allowed such things to happen, even at the expense of their own life and dignity. Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 film, Korczak, examines the final days in the life of Polish doctor, author, radio host, and hero Janusz Korczak, who took it upon himself to protect and provide for 200 Jewish orphans in the Warsaw ghetto until the mass extermination of those living there in 1942, refusing his own freedom to share the fate of his beloved children. This quiet, sad, haunting film is a precursor and influence on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and is available now from Kino Lorber.
Henryk Goldszmit was a Jewish doctor in Poland who wrote children’s literature and presented radio programs under the pen name Janusz Korczak. In the film, played by Wojciech Pszoniak, he is portrayed as loving children, and specifically orphans, with a sense of duty above and beyond being merely a physician. He could have been rich, given his fame and popularity from his many public works, but chose instead to devote his life to serving Warsaw’s many Jewish orphans, running the boarding house for a number of years prior to the Nazi occupation. When Warsaw becomes ghettoized, and all non-Jews are forced to leave, Korczak’s resolve only strengthens, fortifying the orphanage with bricks, gathering what food and money he can from the goodwill he’s built up with the townsfolk, and never allowing the children to know the depth of depravity that exists outside. Early in the film, several children are afraid of a thunderstorm, but he quickly begins to conduct it like an orchestra, displaying to them that he is in control of their safety. He treats the orphans as equals, and though he is the protector, he allows them to govern themselves in a civilized manner.
On the outside, we see Korczak’s desperation. As time withers on, more and more of his rich allies stop donating to the children’s cause, and he is forced to beg the faction of wealthy Jews who more or less allow the Nazi’s to carry out their evil deeds. When Korczak is confronted by a member of the resistance, and his dignity is called into question, he replies that he has none left and he would talk to the Devil himself if it would keep the children safe. We also see how the occupation is affecting the lives of some the orphans. One young boy, a thief and ruffian, is forced to leave his sick mother in order to be safe within the orphanage. His acting out to the other children is met with stern understanding from the Doctor who seems to know exactly how the boy is feeling. Another, older boy is in love with a gentile girl and sneaks out of the ghetto to meet with her. She is eventually forced to cut contact with him, sending him into despair.
This is a very sad film, but it’s not without its lighter, more uplifting moments. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, the horror of what’s going on is never undercut by silliness, but rather with warmth and a desire on Korczak’s part to keep the orphans’ lives as unchanged as possible. Throughout, gunshots are heart intermittently in the background and dead bodies line the roads when the Doctor leaves to collect supplies. Across the street from his bedroom, he sees an ever-present Nazi storm trooper with a rifle always at the ready, and Korczak knows that at any time, he or one of his flock could be gunned down senselessly, but he keeps all of this to himself and never, to the best of his ability, allows it to permeate the walls. The man’s fortitude and drive is awe-inspiring.
The black & white cinematography is by Dutch cameraman Robby Müller, frequent collaborator of Jim Jarmusch and DP on Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Dead Man and he gives the film a sad bleakness which accurately conveys the plight of the Jews and of Warsaw itself. Wajda populates the frame with context at all times, from the death and filth in the streets, to the overrun homes of the rich, to the relative serenity of the orphanage. He also uses the cherubic faces of the kids to illustrate just how sad and terrible the holocaust was on the totally innocent. The young cast are all absolutely marvelous and display the kind of subtlety and nuance that experienced adult actors can’t always muster. The scenes between the children and Korczak are the best parts of the movie.
Holocaust movies are never easy to watch, but it’s important to know how it affected, and continues to affect, Europe. Though tragic, Korczak endeavors to be hopeful in a way not unlike how the Doctor himself tried to instill hope in the children. It’s beautiful to look at and deeply moving. High recommendation to pick up and experience this great film.