February 1, 2010
We watched a 1997 Danish film, “The Island on Bird Street,” which tells of an 11-year-old boy’s attempt to survive while the Nazis are emptying out a Jewish ghetto in Poland and sending its inhabitants to the death camps.
This film is based on what I have seen described as a “semi-autobiographical” novel by Israeli writer Uri Orlev, a Holocaust survivor who has specialized in children’s literature. Although the violence in this film is understated compared to many films about Nazi brutality, it’s not a film for young children. Teenagers wouldn’t flinch.
The story line is that the boy, Alex (Jordan Kiziuk), his father, Stefan (Patrick Bergin) and uncle Baroch (Jack Warden), are among the Polish Jews who are confined to a neighborhood fenced off by the Nazis — much like the Warsaw Ghetto where Orlev was confined as a child. When Stefan and Baroch are swept up in one of the Nazis’ “selections” for transport to a concentration camp, they conspire to let Alex escape the transport. Before the boy runs off, Stefan promises that he will return to the ghetto, and the boy takes that promise seriously.
Alex — who reads “Robinson Crusoe” and plays with his white mouse, Snow — manages through a combination of guile and luck to avoid detection while he dodges the German troops who are gradually emptying the ghetto. The boy encounters some other stragglers, including a few men who are involved in the Polish underground. He eventually begins to slip out of the ghetto into the city at large, but always returns to wait for his father.
Jordan Kiziuk, a British actor who won an Emmy in 1999, delivers a convincing performance as Alex. Most of the film is quite tense as Alex has one close call after another, and Kiziuk has a lot of the burden of sustaining it. In fact, he’s at the center of the drama to such a degree that the other players are largely accessories.
As credible as Kiziuk is in his role, the story itself strains credulity, especially given the persistence of the Nazis in tracking down every straggler in the ghetto. There is also a contradiction in his sometimes elaborate ingenuity and his naive faith that his father will somehow survive the brutality the boy has witnessed again and again. The film ends with Alex still in the ghetto, and a title reports simply that he “survived the war.” In actual fact, Orlev was eventually caught by the Nazis after he was left behind in the ghetto and was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he remained until it was liberated.
This film is visually very dramatic. The location in Poland presents a bleak image of the ghetto that provides an effective setting for the Nazis’ disregard for human dignity, never mind human life. The direction and photography contributed to the considerable attention and critical approval the film received when it was released.