A house of hope during World War II
In the waning days of World War II, as the Nazis were pushed east and Jews began to emerge from hiding, the French government established "houses of hope" to care for Jewish children until their parents could be located. "Nina's Home ," an encore presentation of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, dramatizes a year in the life of one such house, and in the process becomes a deeply affecting meditation on cultural identity. What does it mean to be a Jew when you're 9 and your people have been reduced to ash? How much is owed to the past and how much to the future?
The present, as represented by the rural home overseen by the tough, capable Nina (played by Agnès Jaoui , the writer-director of "Look at Me "), is a limbo freighted with sorrow and possibility. The film opens in September 1944, when most of the children hold out hope their parents will return from Germany, where they have been sent "to work." The Allies control western France and a contingent of Nazi POWs labor on the grounds, a vivid reminder of recently conquered conquerors who some of the children can't resist tormenting. "The Krauts did plenty worse to us," reasons one boy, to which Nina soberly replies, "Do you want to be like them?"
Nothing connects these kids except their heritage and their suffering. One little girl, obviously hidden by Catholics, crosses herself before each meal. Others are ardent communists. By and large they're secular and cosmopolitan, atheists because they see no reason for God's existence and much evidence to the contrary.
The liberation of the death camps in Poland in early 1945 knocks another leg out from under them; the older children read the newspapers and silently understand they're orphans. With the appearance of a train bearing survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald -- the film, stricken mute, pans across their faces for what seems like minutes -- "Nina's Home" becomes a dialectic.
The arrivals, aged 7 to 18 and all boys, are dour miniature adults, any traces of childhood stripped away. They smoke, grab what food they can, eye their new barracks with fear. The others regard them with nervous awe, almost as if they're another species. Yet the camp survivors are also observant Jews, holding on to their religious tradition as the sole link between the 6 million and themselves.
This causes difficulties. The new children demand kosher meals (to which one of the French Jews replies, "What's 'kosher'?"). They huddle nervously around their protector, Gustav (Tomas Lemarquis of "Noi the Albino "), a pallid, viciously pragmatic former death-camp kapo. Should their suffering decree how the rest of the home lives? "Why let the zealots make the rules?" complains one boy.
Like Nina herself, "Nina's Home" makes room for them all, searching for common ground. It's the work of writer-director Richard Dembo (he won a foreign language Oscar for 1984's "Dangerous Moves "), who died during post-production, yet the film survives its maker as a stark, cohesive experience.
Dembo follows the children's individual stories with straightforward style, making each narrative thread clear, always circling back to Jaoui's wearily compassionate Nina and to the future coming into focus. Small moments of joy intrude: a visit by the painter Marc Chagall , bearing a milk-cow, leads to an impromptu mural on the wall of a shed.
Yet there are reminders of the horrors everywhere. A woman writes to the home passing herself off as the mother of two of the children, a ruse that's exposed the moment they lay eyes on her. At least it got her to France, she reasons. "In Poland, they still kill Jews with rocks." "Nina's Home" memorializes a safe harbor while the storm temporarily burns itself out. It's relief work in every sense.