1998, NR, 100 min. Directed by Jeroen Krabbé. Starring Jeroen Krabbé, Laura Fraser, Isabella Rossellini, Topol, Marianne Sagebrecht, Adam Monty, Maximilian Schell, David Bradley.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 6, 2001
Echoes of the Holocaust resonate through two different Jewish families living in 1970s Antwerp while the luminous Rossellini struggles to look plain. To her credit, she succeeds as a Hasidic wife with shorn hair, a wig, and a tatty babushka. And Fraser is a far cry from the tongueless Lavinia she played in Julie Taymor's Titus. As Chaya, the teenage daughter of Holocaust survivors Sagebrecht and Schell, she arrives on the scene a flirty, motormouthed gadabout. Between infrequent dinners with her parents (during which she declares “I hate Jews!”) and bouts of lovemaking with her blond Marxist boyfriend (he looks like an Aryan surfer), she tries to cobble together rent money, and, failing that, takes a job as the nanny to a neighborhood family of Hasids, the Kalmans. In her care are two six-year-old brothers, and a third boy, the terribly cute Simcha (Monty), who, although five, has yet to utter his first word. Then there's Krabbé as the Kalman paterfamilias, as stern and unlikable a Jewish figurehead as you'd want, incapable of expressing love to his family, and far more likely to chide them for some minor Talmudic infraction. Add to this emotionally volatile mix a building concierge who's a closet Nazi and a raft of long-dead Holocaust victims and you have the makings of a particularly grim film. Or so you would think. Krabbé instead enlivens his otherwise dour drama with ample dollops of good humor, most of which arrive in the form of little Simcha, who, with his curly red locks and omnipresent furrowed brow, looks like a little scholar waiting for the right time to emerge from his shell. Naturally, the rest of the characters, Chaya excluded, don't know what to do with the silent child. His brothers tease him (“He stinks of herring!”), his father ignores him, and his mother coddles him. It's obvious from the outset that the boy is the key to the family's emotional troubles; Krabbé makes use of kid's-eye-POV shots and other signifiers, even going so far as to show the boy running, in slow motion, into the arms of Chaya, his eventual savior. Huh. Krabbé, who first turned up on my radar in Steven Soderbergh's underappreciated King of the Hill in 1993, is excellent as the glowering Hasid father. The ground doesn't actually shake when he passes by, but it ought to. He's like the quietly angry left arm of God -- no wonder his family lives in silent awe of him. Krabbé the director isn't as shocking. He films Antwerp beneath a hazy pall; only when Chaya and Simcha go to the park to visit the ducks is there any relief from the film's oppressive gray pallor (and not coincidentally that's where Simcha utters his first word: “Quack!”). The whole of the film is infused with a quiet dread, which occasionally lifts in minor comic moments such as when an angry Chaya has a row with the ill-tempered (and clearly insane) concierge, and when she gets Simcha to learn the Four Questions for an upcoming Seder. As a meditation on survivor guilt and the lingering shadows of the Holocaust, Left Luggage (the title refers to both emotional and literal baggage) is a powerful work. Equalizing that dark and somber tone with some levity is more difficult to accomplish, and though the film is chock-full of standout performances -- Rossellini and Fraser are spot-on -- the film's over-eager sentiments are hard to take as a whole (at least until the one-two sucker punch of an ending). Not for everyone's taste, I'd think, but a notably thoughtful effort nonetheless.