Kino Lorber // 1990 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 27th, 2012
The Holocaust claims another hero.
Because of its subject matter, a Holocaust film fights an impossible uphill battle. Entertainment can't be the intention. Seriousness and subjectivity must battle for primary purpose. Be too graphic and gratuitous with these inexcusable crimes against humanity, and you wind up with something like Uwe Boll's bungled Auschwitz. Play it too safe and saccharine, and you've got The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Honestly, the best examples of the Final Solution in filmmaking tend to come from the small epics, the stories where scope is determined by individual will, not bodies being dragged to mass graves. Schindler's List, Sophie's Choice, and The Pianist all come to mind, movies where the actions of determined dissidents illustrate the monumental horrors of Nazi Germany in rife, redolent colors. We can now add Andrej Wajda's brilliant Korczak to the relatively short list. By taking the story of a famed Polish pediatrician and his struggle to save nearly 200 orphans from the gas chambers of Treblinka, the man responsible for the brilliant War Trilogy focuses on the faces of political victimization and bureaucratic cruelty. The result is sometimes hard to watch, but impossible to forget.
All throughout his life, Dr. Henryk Goldszmit fought for the rights of children. Under the pseudonym of "Janusz Korczak" (Wojciech Pszoniak, The Promised Land), he penned books for their amusement and became a director of Dom Sierot in Warsaw, a forward-thinking orphanage. Running it like a republic, the good doctor set up internal checks and balances, had the kids create their own form of governance and news outlet. He even went so far as to have their paper, Maly Przeglad (Little Review) added to its adult counterpart. His radio shows highlighted his theories on raising and rethinking the role minors play in the world. He was cherished and beloved. But when the Nazis invaded Poland and placed its Jewish population in hellish ghettos, Korczak was suddenly faced with a choice: stay with his charges, or challenge the military madmen. His decision, sadly, ends in tragedy for all.
While it would probably be a SPOILER to say that Dr. Henryk Goldszmit died in a concentration camp, heroically fighting for the near 200 orphans he had cared for during the occupation, for many, said ending is rote. It's the culmination of everything the man stood for. Never giving in to the inevitability of what will happen, he continued to care for his kids in the only way he knew how -- openly, honestly, empathetically. This is what's fascinating about this film: the reasons why. And it's in this regard that Korczak makes its strongest, most celebratory case. It is is a movie about a small man in a big situation, struggling to take his notoriety and niche beyond local celebrity and into the realm of real heroics. Instead of backing down, or giving in (many urge him to simply stop and run away), he becomes a meaningful martyr. By taking the simple, stark way through this material, Wajda only emphasizes the heartbreak. He is not out to canonize Goldszmit. The man's actions did that. By creating a kind of calm context, however, the Oscar-winning director discusses Poland's place in the history of one of humanity's most heartbreaking tragedies.
Few apart from the main character get significant screen time. Some of the children have their own subplots, but this is mere shading for something much bigger. In fact, it's safe to say that Wajda wants to avoid any conflicting undercurrents. He is out to emphasize Goldszmit's selfless actions and his struggles in the face of insurmountable odds. By hiring the amazing Pszoniak, he does just that. We can see the defeat in the actor's eyes, the constant reminder that, as a Jew, his fate is as sealed as those of the unwanted he is determined to protect. We also recognize his moments of strength, as when Goldszmit attempts to stop a Nazi soldier from abusing a man. It's a complicated portrayal, and Pszoniak does a devastating job. As he prepares to lead his kids to the train cars headed toward Treblinka, the look on his face underlines everything the film has been trying to achieve. Oddly enough, Wajda even finds a way to make such an atrocity seem like a "victory" for his subject.
Offered in stunning black and white by Kino International, Korczak looks amazing on Blu-ray. The monochrome imagery has few minor flaws, but the 1080p/AVC transfer in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio delivers definitive textures and lots of detail. Wajda is a wonder at framing and composition, and that comes across in this excellent HD update. Those expecting some immersive soundscape, however, may be disappointed in a mere Mono mix. Sure, it's rendered in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and offers clean, crisp dialogue and atmospherics, but the overall impression is soft, subtle, and understated. This is not some aural extravaganza. It's an accurate reflection of the film's true tone. Sadly, a trailer and stills gallery is all the added content we get. Something about Goldszmit/Korczak himself would have been appropriate. In fact, it almost feels mandatory.
While the cynic in all of us continues to marvel at the number of "true stories" still trickling out of the horror known as The Holocaust, it is important to note that not every entry is superfluous to the main mantra of "never forget." In the case of Korczak, what we are reminded of brings continued clarity to a situation still almost impossible to explain. Man's inhumanity toward his fellow man can never be fully understood. A film like this helps explain those who choose to fight such flawed beliefs.
Not guilty. A great, great film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (Polish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Image Gallery