War Orphans in Film – No Happy Endings

Of all of the post-World War II films that addressed the problems of orphaned children, the Hungarian film Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe, also known as It Happened in Europe, 1947) elicited the most shocked public outcry about the youngest victims of the war. Directed by Géza Radványi, who wrote the screenplay with writer Béla BalazsSomewhere in Europe continued with the filmic trope of pointing unrelenting, accusing fingers at the adults who had allowed the onset of a war (i.e. pretty much everyone) that continued to punish young people long after the last shots had been fired and bombs had been dropped in Europe. Unlike the films Somehwere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946, DEFA/Germany) or Germany in the Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1948, France/Germany/Italy), Radványi’s work focused on war orphans themselves, instead of employing children as part of a larger plot about societal renewal. Somewhere in Europe is a cry of anguish, not a lesson on shame or the politics of reconstruction.

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Screenshot of children attempting to hang the conductor in “Somewhere in Europe.”

Radványi positions a group of wandering children who find their way to an abandoned castle against the adults of the surrounding village who gleefully shoot at – and in one case kill – the “juvenile delinquents” who steal food and supplies in order to (barely) survive. He does not pretend that the children are innocents; indeed, he highlights the ways in which the war and its end pushed young people into criminal acts. Most haunting is perhaps the scene at the castle where the children decide to hang the once-famous conductor who also resides there. When the slightly older leader of the group, Peter, stops them from killing the older man, he asks what motivated them to want to execute another war refugee. The answer: “For fun.” These are children who have learned not only to fend for themselves, but to imitate the behavior of the adults they have encountered, and who abandoned them.

Radványi offers a supposedly happy end for everyone. The local villagers realize that they should be helping the children instead of treating them like the enemy; the children wash their dirty faces and put on suddenly clean clothes and happily wave from their castle – officially now theirs – to the conductor as he heads off across the green pastures of Hungary towards, one presumes, a rekindling of his musical career. I find this “happy ending” rather unhappy and troubling. Forgetting the fact that, in hindsight, the castle would likely have been nationalized in the next years, we are still left with a group of children who have no means of feeding themselves. There is no garden in sight, and the larder of meat left by the conductor will run out at some point. True, the villagers have recognized the errors of their ways. But for how long? There is no talk of caring adults looking after the children’s well-being, or even feeding them. When do the children start pillaging again? The castle is not an orphanage. It is at best a temporary solution, one well-suited to the needs of the time, that is, to find a place where children could be forgotten, at least temporarily.

Screenshot of wandering orphans in "Somewhere in Europe"

Screenshot of wandering orphans in “Somewhere in Europe”

I do not think that Radványi or Balazs intended for their audiences to take away this other message of accusation; the story of war orphans, however, had few happy ends in any postwar society. Somewhere in Europe, in this sense, unconsciously documents this second act of tragedy, in which adults learn to feel solace that children can be saved – from themselves and from their experiences. It is only a temporary salvation; not even a fairy tale would know how to fix this tragedy. If this reason is not enough to bring Somewhere in Berlin more fully into international scholarship and history and film studies classrooms (it has excellent English subtitles, since the United Nations supported the postwar international distribution of the film, helped along by such politicos as the then-French president Auriol Frack and his Dior-clad wife exclaiming that this was a “must-see” film), then the curious use of the nineteenth-century American melody of the folk tune “O Susanna” that the children sing-shout in the castle would surely peak anyone’s curiosity.

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