Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Agnieszka Holland's thoughtful and mature look at the moral tangle of WW2 was overlooked in the clutter of more commercial 80s attractions about the plight of the Jews. This story's source is the book Bittere Ernte by Hermann H. Field and Stanislaw Mierzenski, an American architect and a Polish journalist who were imprisoned for nine years by the Russians after the cessation of hostilities. In a part of rural Poland where most of the populace speaks German, a lonely bachelor hides a miserable refugee from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the temptation for him to consider her as his personal property is too strong.
Leon Wolny (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a 'Germanized' Silesian Pole doing reasonably well in the middle of WW2. His farm produces and the only pressure he feels comes from some local opportunists that want his help to appropriate land and valuables abandoned by local Jews. The unmarried Leon is lonely and desperate for affection; the son of a servant, he still feels beholden to the wealthy ladies from the 'Master's Estate.' Rosa Eckhardt (Elisabeth Trissenaar) has escaped with her husband and daughter from a transport to a concentration camp, but has somehow lost them and is starving in the woods when Leon finds her. Leon hides Rosa in his little house and slowly begins to take advantage of her dependency ... and deludes himself into thinking that he loves her and is doing what is best.
The subject of Europeans hiding Jews from the Nazis conjures the case of Anne Frank, a tragedy in which two entire families were almost saved by a courageous Dutch couple. Many more experiences were much less uplifting, as countless fugitives were robbed, mistreated and betrayed by neighbors promising them shelter. Angry Harvest plots the complex case of Leon and Rosa. Rosa is grateful for Leon's kindness, even when she spends weeks in a dark cellar and nearly loses her grip on reality. Leon is a more difficult problem. His outrage at the thievery of Cybulkowski (Wojciech Pszoniak) stops when Cybulkowski bribes him with a fancy desk stolen from Jews. Confessing his sexual frustration to the local priest, Leon is advised to marry, at which point the Priest's unattractive sister starts hinting that she's available.
Leon has little difficulty hiding Rosa, as his corrupt neighbors never think he's capable of such a thing. He's able to effectively squelch gossip by threatening to fire his nosy farmhands. Leon's trouble is that the temptation of an attractive woman 'in his custody' is too much for him. He's too proud to visit the local tart and too selfish to marry. Rosa should naturally be grateful for the secure hiding place, so Leon uses his position to take advantage of her. Leon is not an evil man, merely a weak one. Rosa has lost almost everything. By becoming his partly willing lover, she loses what little is left of her personal identity. Leon's deceitful 'protection' is the last step in the destruction of a human being.
Leon gives in to sordid self-delusions to rationalize selfish decisions. Rosa hopes that her husband may be hiding out in the woods. Leon gets the idea of leaving her scarf tied to a tree as a signal. Almost immediately, someone ties knots in the scarf -- a probable counter-sign from the husband. Fearful of losing Rosa, Leon makes no mention of it.
Angry Harvest avoids standard suspense scenes with jackbooted German soldiers. We're instead given a number of credible but surprising story turns. Nontacted by an old friend now in the resistance, Leon is too frightened to say no to the task of carrying a message to a nearby town. He 'solves' his problem by enlisting an even more pitiful confederate, with awful results.
Leon is also talked into providing the capital to 'legally steal' an apple orchard owned by a fugitive named Herr Rubin (Klaus Abramowsky). After Leon agrees to this dirty deal, the real Rubin shows up, asking for money in exchange for not demanding his property back after the war. Rosa is shocked by this arrangement and strikes a terrible bargain. Leon pays the old man in exchange for Rosa's companionship.'
Things come to a head when Leon must take in a lady from a family that has named him in their will. Circumstances give him no choice but to put her up in his own house. Leon pays some peasants to keep and hide Rosa. She's terrified to go with strangers and is convinced she's being thrown away.
Leon's guilt is such that he hides behind his religion and browbeats Rosa into converting to Christianity, so she can marry him after the war. Such illusions of beneficence are needed to cover his shameful acts of betrayal. Rosa's survival is a miracle, and if Leon had more character he could share the miracle with her. As it is, he buys his way out of responsibility and lets other take his risks for him. In the end he realizes that he's the villain in a story that could have had a beautiful finish.
Armin Mueller-Stahl and Elisabeth Trissenaar are amazing as the ill-fated, emotionally crippled couple. The subject matter lends itself to all manner of exploitation, but director Agnieszka Holland somehow avoids the slightest hint of sordid interest. This may be the most honest, and least exploitative film ever about the experiences of defenseless fugitives from the Nazis.
Image's DVD of Angry Harvest is a quality flat transfer of this West German production, a 1986 nominee for best foreign film. The German subtitles are removable. There are no extras on the disc, but Lee Ferdinand provides helpful insert notes. Director Holland worked with Andrzej Wajda and Krystof Kieslowski in the early 1970s. Several of the actors are known for appearances in Rainer Werner Fassbinder films. Featured player Kurt Raab brings back shuddery memories from Ulli Lommel's The Tenderness of Wolves.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Angry Harvest rates:
Supplements: Insert notes by Lee Ferdinand
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 22, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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