Korczak

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of five): ***

Directed by Andrzej Wajda -- a four-time nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as well as the maker of the masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958) -- Korczak is a Holocaust picture and a biopic about a real-life Polish hero. Janusz Korczak (played by Wojciech Pszoniak) was a teacher, author, and doctor who took it upon himself to care for 200 orphans during the Nazi occupation of Poland in WWII. As far as I can tell, Korczak never received a release in the United States, other than possible festival dates. Now Kino has graced it with a new DVD and Blu-ray release.

The film itself is only sporadically effective. Wajda's motivation is clearly hero worship, and Korczak barely comes across as a real character. He's noble and devoted in scene after scene, and his sole purpose in the film seems to be arguing with other people about how devoted he truly is. Other characters don't seem to matter much, such as when a young couple under Korczak's care fall in love and express their wish to marry; not long after, the woman is arrested and disappears into the Nazi machine. She's never heard from again, and the man is shown in a few more scenes, simply going about his business as if nothing had happened.

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Some scenes are nicely effective as when Korczak cleverly deals with some of the dramas that spring up between the children, specifically another love story in which a Jewish teen is heartbroken over a non-Jewish girl. The film is perhaps most notable for the black-and-white cinematography of Robby Müller, which has the effect of softening and distancing those troubled times (though Wajda clearly soft-pedals his material even more). The only true Holocaust horrors are shown through the eyes of a camera crew; Wajda then inserts graphic newsreel footage of thin, dead bodies.

Aside from all this, the most interesting facet of Korczak is the fact that Steven Spielberg provided a blurb for the DVD box cover. If Spielberg saw the film in 1990 or 1991, then it was probably in preparation for the remarkably similar Schindler's List (1993). It's clear that he learned a great deal from Korczak, both its virtues and its mistakes. Spielberg made his rescuer hero a great deal more slippery and selfish, making him more intriguing and more human. He also learned to break up the story's points with little rewards, moments of humor and relief in-between moments of drama and horror. Best of all, Spielberg learned the powerful effect that black-and-white can have on this kind of material, making it more intimate, but less gory.

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Another detail of note: the screenwriter of Korczak was Agnieszka Holland, who also wrote and directed a much better Holocaust movie the same year, Europa Europa.

So if Korczak isn't an artistic success, it's very much a historical success, offering a brief and powerful film school for interested filmmakers, and thus leading to better films.

Kino's DVD features stills and a trailer.

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