Monday, February 20, 2017

Polish-Jewish Film Series: The Innocents

Image courtesy of IMDB

By Alexandra van Doren 


The most recent screening of the Polish-Jewish Film Series, sponsored by the Program for Jewish Culture and Society and the European Union Center, was The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine and shown in its original French with subtitles. The film depicts the true story of a Polish convent full of nuns who have been brutalized and sexually abused by Soviet soldiers occupying Poland in 1945 in the wake of the Second World War. The scars they were left with were not only psychological; the majority of the nuns were impregnated after the attack on the convent, and will soon be delivering. While trying to hide their pregnancies from the surrounding community, one sister seeks the help of a French Red Cross nurse, Mathilde, who befriends the nuns and even eventually helps them avoid another Russian “invasion” at the convent. The challenge then becomes what to do with all of the infants after delivery? The mother superior takes matters into her own hands and claims she has sacrificed herself to protect the sisters she supervises by leaving the infants out in the bitter cold while telling the mothers the babies have been taken to be raised by willing family members. Mathilde is ordered to leave Poland, but devises a plan to protect the rest of the babies who have not yet been taken from their mothers. The convent becomes an orphanage for Polish children whose parents were killed in the war and for the newborns, who will now require no explanation for their presence at the convent.

The introduction to the film, written by Priscilla Charrat and read by Claire Baytas, denoted Fontaine’s acute use of silence throughout this film, with very few scenes punctuated by a soundtrack. I was particularly attuned to the moments of silence after hearing these comments, and one observation that I raised during the discussion after the film was the use of silence in moments that were somewhat surprising. All of the labor scenes except the last at the very end were silent. The mothers did not cry and scream, though they were clearly in pain. The silence was broken in moments of violence. For example, Mathilde is almost gang-raped by Russian soldiers on her way home from the convent one evening, and perhaps for the first time we hear a woman (her) screaming to escape her assailants. The depictions of sexual violence and the physical and psychological aftermath made this film atypical in the canon of “Holocaust films,” if it even belongs to the category at all. It certainly grapples with the horrors of the war in Poland, but from the perspective of a woman’s suffering rather than Polish or Jewish suffering. The film is stirring, provocative, and certainly one worth watching for its honest and brutal portrayal of the female experience in a war-torn country.

Alexandra van Doren is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative & World Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.  She serves as an Associate Editor at the European Union Center.  

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