Freedom Festival 1999: Korczak
113 min., b&w, 35mm
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Contact: New Yorker Films,
16 West 61st Street, 11th Floor,
New York, NewYork 10023 USA
Essay by Eva Zaoralová, Program Director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Database of Russian and Ex-Soviet Union directors
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Produced by Regina Ziegler
Education is my business, not politics, says Henryk Goldszmit (Wojciech Pszoniak) early in this moving, controversial drama in which the prominent pediatrician and educator, who wrote under the pen name Janusz Korczak, fights a valiant but ultimately tragic battle to protect the 200 children in his care from the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and deportation to the Treblinka death camp. Pszoniak (who played Robespierre in Wajda's Danton) brings a fiery nobility to the events in Agnieszka Holland's script (her father had written for Korczak's review).
Working in a stark, almost detached, black and white that earned cinematographer Robby Müller a German Film Award in 1991, Wajda's approach is nevertheless a deeply humanistic one, underscoring the rejection of hatred at the heart of the doctor's work (note the German cameramen in the ghetto, whose undisturbed documentation of life there is intercut with the actual and awful newsreel footage they shot).
As such, the film was criticized for soft-pedaling Polish complicity and the fate of the children, a charge the director refuted by telling the New York Times that "art has to stop short of certain facts, has to look for other possibilities," proving that it is both education and politics that is at the heart of his business. Korczak occupies that space between Shoah and Schindler's List, where the unspeakable atrocities of that war are given the dignity of verisimilitude and the propulsion of enthralling narrative. —Eddie Cockrell