The Wild, Wild Fest, Part 2

Continuing my rambles through the world's longest-ever film festival, I couldn't resist a peek at a tiny bit of the glitz that seems to be almost as important to these enterprises as the films themselves. I attended the opening night of the Boca Mini-Fest at a posh mall, Mizner Park. First there was the preshow reception at the Museum of Cartoon Art, which may be unique in all the world, whether it brings fame to Boca Raton or not. At any rate, the hundreds of first-nighters in attendance, oohing over each other's couture and coiffeur, were all revved up for a breezy good evening, and it took awhile for The Island on Bird Street to dash them into rapt attention. It was not a film for a gala evening, but such was its power that it turned a theaterful of merrymakers into an audience so moved that they left silently and in single file.

Like many of this year's entrants, The Island on Bird Street is an eclectic, multinational production. Filmed in English by Danish director SŻren Kragh-Jacobsen, it boasts a strong cast who speak for the most part with a varied assortment of British accents. Because the plot centers on the desperate plight of a ten-year-old Jewish boy who's hiding from Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto, the voices are at once startlingly familiar and disturbingly removed in this unexpected context, in which they belong to Jew and German alike. Hollywood has trained us to expect Nazis to have German accents, forgetting that they are supposed to be speaking their native language (which we may suppose people do without accents). But there is something really chilling about a storm trooper with a sadistic face sounding like one of the Beatles. We expect sensitivity from an enemy who sounds like an ally, and the fact that we are deceived lends additional menace. If you enjoy reading meanings into what you see, you could almost say that the tragedy of Bird Street is the rending of the human family: Why, in the midst of the appalling rubble of a ruined city, should men continue to torment, persecute, and murder innocent people who look and sound like their brothers and sisters?

The "island" of the title is a partially destroyed factory that has been operated for years by Boruch (Jack Warden, the sole American in the cast), a man who, like millions of others, never thought his Jewish ancestry set him apart from his fellow Poles. But now, though the factory is still somewhat in business, Boruch and his son Stefan (Patrick Bergin) and ten-year-old grandson Alex (Jordan Kiziuk) must live from day to day at the pleasure of their conquerors -- until such time as the Nazis come to cart them off to what the optimistic Boruch believes may be a work camp but which Stefan knows will be their place of execution.

In a sense Bird Street begins where The Diary of Anne Frank ends. The Nazis decide to close the factory and ship out the three men of the family. After Alex's father makes a break for it and his grandfather gets gunned down, the remainder of the film deals with his struggle to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, all the while remaining in the crumbling factory so his father can find him. Alex may not have Anne's poetic soul and her profound belief that there is some good in all people, but he has a young boy's utterly believable trust in his father's word, and he's sensitive enough to understand the inhuman acts some of the survivors are forced to commit against one another.

The work of Kragh-Jacobsen -- who made his directing debut in 1978 with the dubiously titled Wanna See My Beautiful Navel? -- is little short of stupendous here. So realistic are the scenes of the gradually decaying factory that one not only identifies with Alex but at times becomes him. Equally effective are the long stretches of silence as the boy prowls the deserted night streets in a desperate quest for food. Any sound at all -- a pebble inadvertently kicked, a louder-than-expected noise of a toilet flushing, even a sneeze -- creates almost unbearable tension. Besides serving as a reminder of what our species has proved capable of, The Island on Bird Street is also a taut, scary thriller; like all great thrillers, its suspense comes from what we don't see and don't hear.

The performances are inspired, as if the cast members knew they were fortunate enough to be in a major film people will be talking about for a long while. Bergin is just fine in the abbreviated role of Stefan; he lends enough warmth and humanity to the early scenes with his son for us to pray the two will be reunited. Warden, one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood, endows the grandfather with a dignity and radiance that just about sum up the humane culture that was nearly wiped from the face of the Earth.

But the final bow must inevitably be reserved for young Jordan Kiziuk. We've all seen preteens without extensive acting training (where could they get it?) giving what we call "adequate" performances, and mostly we have to make allowances. Believing in the forced, unfelt emotions of the child actor is simply one of the conventions of stage and screen. Here no such convention exists. Kiziuk carries nearly every one of the film's 107 minutes on his fragile shoulders. The camera mercilessly follows him everywhere: scrounging for food, thirsting for even a drop of water, bursting with teary-eyed joy when he finds his pet white mouse still alive, holding his breath whenever he hears the heavy tread of the soldiers searching night and day for Jews, speechless with terror when the rope ladder he has so carefully woven suddenly falls from its place of concealment right behind a soldier on guard.

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