At the end of WW2, it was estimated that more than 6 million people had been displaced from their homes and roughly 180,000 of these were children. Some were concentration camp survivors, others were orphaned or separated from their families, hiding in monasteries or living with strangers. There have been a handful of films that dealt with this traumatic situation and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) is probably the most famous post-war American film on the subject. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won a special Juvenile Oscar for Ivan Jandl as a homeless kid separated from his Czech mother. Europe also produced some landmark films about displaced children during WW2 including Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) and Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952) but Somewhere in Europe aka It Happened in Europe (Hungarian title: Valahol Europaban) from Hungarian director Geza von Radvanyi was one of the first films to address war orphans trying to fend for themselves. Released in 1947, the film is less well known than other post-war dramas from the same period but it is a harrowing portrait of a dire situation affecting Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, during the final days of the war.
Von Radvanyi’s film opens in the countryside somewhere near the Danube and is dedicated to “the homeless child” as represented by a small group of ragamuffins walking aimlessly along a rural road. Brief backstories on some of the orphans are shown as grim vignettes that accent their forlorn situation: one is shown being pushed out of a boxcar to safety by friends or family who are probably headed for the concentration camp, another witnesses her father and neighbors being executed by German soldiers and one small boy takes refuge in a deserted amusement park as enemy planes target the area with machine gun fire.
Gradually the group grows larger as more stray kids join the entourage and eventually Peter (Mikos Gabor), a reform school escapee, becomes the logical leader of the pack because he is the oldest and most decisive in terms of leadership. Still, the group is like a pack of wild animals, starving, thirsty and violent. The majority of the young marauders are boys with the exception of two young girls and Eva (Zsuzsa Banki), a teenager who poses as a boy with her short-cropped hair.
At one point, a brawl breaks out over a loaf of bread but soon the kids are taking dangerous risks. They raid the barns and houses of farmers at night stealing chickens, supplies and killing a pig for food. The latter incident ends with one of the thieves being shot and killed and soon the orphans are being pursued by gun-wielding locals.
When the gang comes across the ruins of a bombed-out castle in the countryside, they discover that parts of the structure are intact and ideal as a hideout. It also has a full pantry of food and wine because an elderly man named Piotr Simon (Artur Somlay) has made it his refuge. A former symphony conductor, he now lives a hermetic existence hidden away from the Nazis. But the kids stage a night raid on Piotr’s lair and take him prisoner, even threatening to hang him. Luckily, Peter realizes that Piotr is not only sympathetic to the gang’s plight but also the key to their survival.
Somewhere in Europe may remind you of the neorealism classics of post-war Italy that dealt with kids who were forced to grow up before their time such as Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine. There are also other darker, more disturbing elements that suggest a savage new world order, something that would later surface in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Von Radvanyi’s film is stark, even pitiless in its depiction of these feral vagabonds and the first half of the film is almost as disturbing as Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), a tale of delinquent youths living hand-to-mouth in the slums of Mexico City. Yet, Somewhere in Europe is not some hopeless slough into complete despair. It builds to a moving and compassionate climax in which an unexpected unity is forged between the villagers and the kids, paving the way to a more hopeful future for the orphans.
Even if Somewhere in Europe is not well known in the U.S., it was both a critical and popular success in Hungary and Europe and is still considered a key film in revitalizing Hungarian cinema in the late forties. Some contemporary film critics have attacked von Radvanyi’s film as being blatant communist propaganda but the charges seem undeserved and vague. If anything Somewhere in Europe clearly places the blame for displaced children and social collapse on those adults who allowed the war to erupt and how does that espouse socialism? The film was made just before the Communist Party took over the Hungarian film industry in 1948 and was not subjected to heavy scrutiny or censorship during that brief transition period.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is Barnabas Hegyi’s evocative cinematography which captures the war-battered reality of rural Hungary as well as the mysterious allure of Piotr’s secret retreat. One of my favorite moments in the mostly dialogue-free opening of the film is set in a carnival house of horrors where a small boy watches a fire break out and melt several horrific wax figures including a replica of Hitler; the scene predates the fiery climax of Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (1953). The music score by Denes Buday is also notable and gives the fast-paced narrative a driving urgency. It is performed by the MAV Symphony Orchestra and you’ll hear snatches of compositions by Beethoven and Stephen Foster plus the repetitive use of “La Marseillaise” as an inspirational unity anthem for the disenfranchised orphans!
If there are any flaws in the film, it might be a brief lapse into sentimentality in the final kangaroo court scene where Piotr makes an impassioned plea for the kids. Also, Peter and Eva are clearly too old to be considered adolescents: Miklos Gabor (Peter) was 28 years old at the time and Zsuzsa Banki (Eva) was 26. The rest of gang are played by mostly unknown and non-professional child actors and blend in well with the almost-documentary like approach von Radvanyi employs. The real star of Somewhere in Europe, however, is Artur Somlay as the orchestra conductor/father figure for the boys. He began acting for the screen in 1912 and successfully survived the switch from silent movies to the sound era, making more than 70 films. This was one of the final film appearances of the Budapest born actor.
Somewhere in Europe was first released on DVD in March 2006 by Facets in Chicago. The print was acceptable but is clearly in need of restoration. This would be a worthy contender for consideration by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which has restored and remastered numerous almost-lost films over the years.
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