Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Unknown Film You Simply Must See: Better than Lanzmann's "Shoah."

From "Birthplace" a Pawel Lozinski film. Source.

Pawel Lozinski’s 1992 documentary film “Birthplace” or “Miejsce Urodzenia” is one of the best films addressing the Holocaust I’ve ever seen. It is all but unknown. The International Movie Database page for the film is virtually empty. I was introduced to the film by Annamaria Orla-Bukowski. Without her, I probably never would have heard of it.

“Birthplace” is a better film than Claude Lanzmann’s much celebrated “Shoah.”

In “Birthplace,” Pawel Lozinski films Henryk Grynberg returning to a Polish shtetl where he survived World War Two with the aid of Polish Catholic peasants.

Polish-American author Henryk Grynberg has been cited previously on this blog.

Filmmaker Pawel Lozinski is the son of Marcel Lozinski, who made two of my favorite Polish films, 1988’s “Witnesses” and the 1993 film “89 mm from Europe.”

So far, so familiar. We’ve seen many such films, from Lanzmann’s “Shoah” to Marian Marzynski’s “Shtetl” to Menachem Daum’s “Hiding and Seeking.” These are the Polish-Holocaust version of “white man’s burden” films. There is a long pan of Polish countryside. There is lachrymose music. A car full of well-dressed Americans, tall and with good teeth, drives up to a Polish peasant farmhouse deep in the countryside. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. Passing neighbors ask, “What the heck?” Passengers emerge from a car, along with a film crew, thrust their lenses into peasant faces, and demand: “Why didn’t you stop the Holocaust?”

“Shoah” and “Shtetl” and “Hiding and Seeking” are all “Us v. Them” movies. All offer the viewer the chance to feel superior to Polish peasants. They did this. Not us. We could not do such an awful thing as commit atrocities in the Holocaust. We are tall and clean; we have good teeth; we have indoor plumbing. They have dirt under their fingernails and work in muck. No wonder they do bad things. No wonder we are ethically, as well as sartorially, superior.

Lanzmann, peacock that he is, carries this to extremes. He does not speak directly to Poles. He uses a translator, and, given that I speak English and a reasonable amount of French and Polish, I can attest that in at least one key instance, his translation is a distortion. Elegant French man. Dirty Polish peasant. Lanzmann does feature one good Pole: the aristocratic Jan Karski.

Timothy Snyder well described this genre of filmmaking and its message in this quote:

"TOOTHLESS, UNEDUCATED, ANTI-SEMITIC POLISH PEASANTS, names absent or misspelled, impossible objects of identification…Lanzmann wanted to make an important point about the continuity of CHRISTIAN ANTI-SEMITISM after and despite the Holocaust … There is an undeniable moral and aesthetic power to the scenes in which POLISH PEASANTS REVEAL THEIR ANTI-SEMITIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD in their very descriptions of the Holocaust … how does Lanzmann direct this power? He flatters us with it, unmistakably separating the western allies from A BARBAROUS POLISH COUNTRYSIDE where such things as DEATH FACILITIES could be erected."

“Birthplace” is not that movie. It is a much better movie. A deeply moving one.

Henryk Grynberg is not an outsider. He speaks fluent Polish to people he knows and in many ways is like.

There is no them. There is only us. That is the miracle of “Birthplace.”

No one is translating. Grynberg is speaking Polish to Polish-speaking people. He lived in their houses, drank their milk. They knew his mother and ate cake at her wedding. They went to school with his relatives, whom they name and describe with intimacy.

The peasants in “Birthplace” are every bit as dirty as the peasants in any of the films mentioned above. They are wearing shoddy, unflattering clothes. One man, who says some very tough things, is wearing a laughably ridiculous hat.

The film takes care of that. It does not turn these badly dressed, dirty, hard working peasants into the very bad them; it does not turn us, the viewers, into a very different us. They are the entire screen. No one shows up and gets all huffy in French silk and talks Fransay at them. No one onscreen is counting the seconds till he can get back to his five-star hotel. We are all in this together. The wall is finally torn down. We are them. We are these Polish peasants, because they are the only humans on the landscape. We are given no choice but to identify.

That is the miracle of “Birthplace.”

I think that so many rushed so quickly and insistently to hate Polish peasants after “Neighbors” came out because they needed to distance themselves from the atrocities peasants committed. “I could never do that I could never do that I could never do that.” “Birthplace” offers no such comfort. Oh, yes you could. Nothing that is human is foreign to you.

Polish peasants are the world of the film.

There are good people. Deeply, courageously good people. They are ambiguous people. Shall I believe that man? Not? Why not?

There is at least one frighteningly cold man who releases chilling words from a face deeply creased by sun and wind and cold and hard work he could never escape.

There is a man so disturbed and disturbing he is a five-act tragedy, or a crime novel, all to himself.

The good. The terrifying. The depressing. All Polish peasants. Every last one. Just like you. Just like me.

And they all live cheek by jowl, in the same Polish village.

I always object when I read people saying that Poles were worse than the Nazis. I object because it’s not true.

Polish peasants in “Birthplace” say that there are people, among their own neighbors, who were worse than the Nazis.

From their mouths, it is a totally different statement.

This is what I hear: many of these people risked their very lives to help Jews. Many. Not one or two righteous, but many.

And, in their own midst, there were people so debased, so heartless, that they would kill a Jew just to be able to steal his cow. And they hated these people. And they remembered their names. They could not do anything about their hate for their evil neighbors under Nazism, or Communism. But someone showed up with a microphone and a camera, and all those memories came alive. And they took action. This film shows them doing exactly that. All Polish peasants. All in one, mutually-dependent, village setting.

The plot of the film follows Henryk Grynberg trying to find out what happened to his father. Though the chance that anyone will watch this film based on this blog post are rare, I will not reveal the ending, because I really do not want to spoil it for you. It’s that good. I watched the film in a room full of students and, though I tried, I could not avoid crying audibly at this film’s stunning climax.


  1. Sounds amazing. Yet another one to get my hands on. Hope it has English sub-titles so my husband can watch. Thanks for the info.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting document.
    Thank you, Danusha.
    The DVD with 9 movies including “Birthplace” by Paweł Łoziński is available at,752764.html
    This is a region free DVD.

  3. Thank you for writing this magnificent blog. I've been reading it from some time now, and it continues to give me much to think about.
    This particular post certainly made me want to watch Łoziński's documentary, however there is one thing that surprised me. You mentioned Menachem Daum’s “Hiding and Seeking.” in rather negative context. When I sow this documentary in Polish television about year or two ago, it made very good impression on me. After reading yours review I must say that I see your point, but I still have a feeling that you judged “Hiding and Seeking.” a little to harshly.
    While doing some search about this topic I found an article by Menachem Daum (illustrated with video material)in which he says about his reflections after making “Hiding and Seeking.” and work on new project - "Common Ground" a documentary about Poles working on restoration of Jewish cemeteries, and memory of Jewish past of their towns in general.

    I also found very interesting material in videos on Daum's Vimeo profile (even if a lot of it repeats itself)

    Overall it all given me a impression that "Common Ground" had potential to be better documentary than "Hiding and Seeking". It's a petty that it was never finished, I hope it still will be.
    I hope you will find this interesting and I would be very happy to know your opinion.

  4. Arutr, thank you for your comment.

    My overall assessment of "Hiding and Seeking" is positive. I think I gave it a five star review on Amazon. My review is linked above.

    I agree with you. Grouping "Hiding and Seeking" with "Shoah" and "Shtetl" might give the wrong impression.

    At the same time, "Hiding and Seeking" is like those other two films in that it depicts American Jews traveling to Poland and looking askance at Poles. This is not the stance of the filmmaker, but I take it to be the stance of his wife and his sons. I may be wrong. I am basing what I write here on their facial expressions and the things they say.

    Blog posts are by their very nature incomplete and blog readers are well advised to factor into their assessment of blog posts the nature of blogs. I did link my positive Amazon review of "Hiding and Seeking" above.

    Again, Artur, thank you for reading and for commenting.

  5. Was this documentary shown on a cable station in this past year? Your description sounds familiar. If what I saw was this film, it was memorable for the reasons you outline. Christina Pacosz

  6. It sounds really promising to me. As you described about a Filmmaker, his father and his films, I think they are very passionate about filmmaking and born filmmaker.

  7. Here above every pictures looking awesome. I am really impressed by that. Thanks for sharing such a great information and photos.

  8. Your description sounds familiar. If what I saw was this film, it was memorable for the reasons you outline. Christina Pacosz


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
This blog welcomes comments from readers that address those themes. Off-topic and anti-Semitic posts are likely to be deleted.
Your comment is more likely to be posted if:
Your comment includes a real first and last name.
Your comment uses Standard English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Your comment uses I-statements rather than You-statements.
Your comment states a position based on facts, rather than on ad hominem material.
Your comment includes readily verifiable factual material, rather than speculation that veers wildly away from established facts.
T'he full meaning of your comment is clear to the comment moderator the first time he or she glances over it.
You comment is less likely to be posted if:
You do not include a first and last name.
Your comment is not in Standard English, with enough errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar to make the comment's meaning difficult to discern.
Your comment includes ad hominem statements, or You-statements.
You have previously posted, or attempted to post, in an inappropriate manner.
You keep repeating the same things over and over and over again.