the Arms of Strangers: Tales of the Kindertransport
The kindertransport is an episode in twentieth-century history dealing with the relocation to Britain of thousands of children under threat from Nazi persecution. Although this is, at first glance, a story of salvation from the horrors of the Holocaust, director Mark Jonathan Harris and producer Deborah Oppenheimer dig deep into the ambivalent legacy of this incident in Into the Arms of Strangers.
Above all, this is a portrait of families scarred or shattered by the traumas of history. Those who are still around to recall their experiences often conjure idyllic childhoods in Germany, Czechoslovakia or Austria, cruelly curtailed when they were placed upon the train that would send them into a radically new and unfamiliar environment.
The film delves with great insight and compassion into the clash of cultures that resulted. For some effusive children expecting warmth from their surrogate parents, "British restraint" took a heavy toll. Others adapted completely to their second homes. Difficult for all the kinder, however, was the question of uniting their lost past with the present and the future: how to engineer the possibility of a reunion with their real parents; how to find out if they even survived the war? In fiction, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz works over some of these same poignant, tearing issues.
For some of those whose stories we hear, Britain turned out to be not such a safe refuge, after all. Enforced exile recurred – as in the shocking tale of the "Dunera boys" en route to our own shores. In the face of so much death and misery, the film affirms the will to survive and continue generational lines.
The vignettes of family life that are recounted in this film are often overwhelming. Even after the war, parents and children did fit together again easily – with the surrogate families now finding themselves having to cope with loss. One especially heartbreaking tale is told by a woman whose father was grief stricken at the prospect of her departure that he literally pulled her from the train window – an impulsive gesture that would later lead to tragic consequences for this confused little girl.
If I have one criticism of this excellent film, it is in relation to its facile use of a particular technique familiar from television documentary. Determined at every point to keep the images and sounds flowing smoothly, Harris exploits a certain margin of inexactness in the historical materials at his disposal.
The trick is so widespread these days it almost passes below our notice. If the commentary mentions that someone worked in a library at a certain period, we are treated to archival shots of someone in a library – and it doesn't matter exactly from where or when this footage derives, as long as it loosely fits or illustrates the mention of such a thing. Likewise, if the footage is silent, many contemporary documentarians will not hesitate to supplement it with apparently lifelike, ambient sounds.
Such sleight-of-hand or opportunistic casualness with the original context of a document – which would be unforgiveable in written histories – is terribly prevalent in mainstream documentaries. Only more severe and extreme works like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) or the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daničle Huillet pursue truly rigorous practices of historiography.
Harris' film belongs to another tradition; essentially, it aligns itself with the reminiscing, storytelling mode of oral history. And, on this level, it cannot be doubted that Into the Arms of Strangers delivers a remarkable, informative and very moving story.
© Adrian Martin November 2000