In March ’68, the shocking events of the Polish political and social crisis of that time are dramatized through the eyes of two families. Hania, a young woman who is Jewish, is in love with Janek, a boy whose father is a member of the nomenklatura, a senior official whose career is endangered by the political activism his son is dabbling in.
But careers are only one of the concerns for Jewish Poles, whose very identities as citizens of the country are in jeopardy, as the society spirals with a chilling and apparent suddenness into antisemitic frenzy. The blatant antisemitism is masqueraded as an “anti-Zionist” campaign and a defence against “non-Polish” elements.
Poland was in a financial panic, with wage reductions and assorted economic turmoil. Events spiraled after the expulsion from the university of political dissidents and the closure of a theatre presentation deemed anti-government. No prerequisites are required. The film, from director Krzysztof Lang, tells the viewer all they need to know about the history – and the petty and not-so-petty indignities of living under a repressive regime.
Through the braying voices of the country’s communist leaders and parallel street-level Jew-baiting, the status of Jewish Poles deteriorates rapidly and Hania’s family is faced with a choice for their future.
This Romeo and Juliet story is endearingly told against the heartbreaking backdrop of generational divisions that were tearing at families all over the world in 1968, a microcosm of the larger tumult. In Poland, these divisions were exacerbated by a social contagion that forced an exodus of much of the tiny remnant of post-Shoah Polish Jews, a disappearance that is emotionally depicted in black-and-white at the end of the film.
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Lost Transport opens like a war-era cinematic news short, an elementary map of Europe being encroached by Allied forces from the West and Red Army movements from the east.
As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis selected from among the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen a few thousand of what they called Austauschjuden, “exchange Jews,” who they imagined to be of particular value to the Allies and who, as a result, the Nazis intended to barter for German prisoners of war or money. Almost 7,000 inmates, in three train transports, were being moved from the advancing front. A train bound for Theresienstadt (now in Czechia) encountered a blown-up bridge and was stranded near the German town of Tröbitz. Within days, the incarcerated passengers were liberated by the Red Army (and, later, by Americans).
Lost Transport demonstrates the chaos and confusion of liberation for the Jewish passengers and defeat for the German residents.
It seems a tactless quibble with these sorts of dramatizations to note that healthy actors are obligated to believably depict the victims of atrocities, but in this instance the task seems particularly stark, with almost all of the liberated people well-clothed, clean, remarkably well-groomed and bright-eyed.
The story is viewed primarily through the eyes of Isaac and Simone, a Dutch couple liberated from the train; Vera, a Russian sniper; and Winnie, a young German woman who sees her mother shot by the Red Army and her home taken over by the other main figures in the film. The characterizations are often cardboard – the individuals are rough stand-ins for their respective peoples – and the script ham-fisted. The three women eventually see one another’s humanity (even if the viewer struggles to do so) and the resolution is almost painfully perfect.
March ’68 and Lost Transport screen as part of this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. For tickets and the full festival lineup, visit vjff.org.