MY MOTHER'S COURAGE
Directed and written by Michael Verhoeven
Based on a story by George Tabori
Starring Pauline Collins, Ulrich Tukur, Natalie Morse, Heirbert Sasse and Tabori.
Distributed by the National Center for Jewish Film
You don't have to be Theodor Adorno to recognize the enormous difficulties of representing the Holocaust on film. The road of good intentions more often than not leads to ghoulish sensationalism or pious exercises in tearjerking. Michael Verhoeven knows all these pitfalls. His commitment to anti-fascism is evident from his two best-known films, the rather stodgy 1985 WHITE ROSE and the excellent 1990 NASTY GIRL. The 1995 MY MOTHER'S COURAGE strives for an ironic, Brechtian (the title is a clue) approach to the material. An adaptation of a story by Hungarian-Jewish writer George Tabori (who also wrote Hitchcock's I CONFESS and worked on the screenplays of several Joseph Losey films) based on an incident that occurred to his mother Elsa, it takes place on the day in 1944 when she was apprehended by Nazis and set en route to Auschwitz. I don't doubt the seriousness of his intentions; nevertheless, MY MOTHER'S COURAGE is a muddled mess.
In addition to telling Elsa's story, MY MOTHER'S COURAGE tells another story - a story of distance (between 1944 and 1995, between a German gentile and a Hungarian Jew, between a mother and son.) Its goal is to make these gaps tangible and to remind us that representation always involves distortion. Unfortunately, another gap becomes tangible, one that may have more to do with financial difficulties than Verhoeven and Tabori's intentions. Although set in Budapest, the film was shot in Berlin and everyone speaks German. Additionally, two of the lead actors (Pauline Collins and Natalie Morse) are British; therefore, they (along with a couple of Czech actors in minor parts) are dubbed into German. The Germans are inexplicably fond of the barbaric practice of dubbing (maybe it's something in the pork); to an American (to this American, at least), the dubbing transforms the setting from Hungary into Hunmany or Germary, provinces of the magic kingdom Co-ProductionLand.
In a press statement, Verhoeven is quite articulate about the non- (and implicitly, anti-)Hollywood approach of MY MOTHER'S COURAGE: "I am not trying to...overrun the audience with total illusion, but on the contrary am trying to make the audience my accomplice. I want the viewer to be fully aware at all times that he or she is not witnessing reality, but seeing a film that is telling a story and demonstrating its historical context...My film is to be a strand of nerves laid bare." I'm sympathetic to this call for active spectatorship, but paradoxically, MY MOTHER'S COURAGE is at its least effective at its most non-illusionist. George Tabori makes several walk-on appearances, mostly in the first half hour, and these tend to feel like in-jokes. First, he introduces the film and walks into a Berlin studio to meet Collins. It's his 80th birthday; the cast and crew greet him with a cake. Later, he interrupts a scene to point out that one of the Nazi officers is wearing a mismatched pair of boots. In the middle of the film, he pops up in a field to greet the SS officer (played by Ulrich Tukur) who provides Elsa's deus ex machina. These interjections don't provide much real insight; they feel like ideas that looked good on paper but don't translate well to film.
There's an additional problem: not everyone is in on the joke. Julian Nott and Simon Verhoeven's conventionally melodramatic score tends to dominate the middle third, mostly set in a crowded cattle-car. Elsa Tabori is a naively optimistic "heroine," bewildered by and not fully aware of the horrors happening around her, but Collins plays her as a three-dimensional, believable character. Natalie Morse's performance as a similarly bewildered teenage girl is similarly naturalistic. Collins' presence is key to the film's most genuinely challenging scene, in which she (dressed in costume, including the yellow star) walks out of a train station in "1944," rides up an escalator and walks out onto a street in present-day Berlin, only to be stared at by people who don't seem to realize they're being filmed. For once, Verhoeven succeeds in creating a productive conflict between the past and present: one that implicates the audience. It's our loss that the rest of the film can't match this level of invention.