Dir: Mark Jonathan Harris. US. 2000. 122 mins.
Prod co: Sabine Films, with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Domestic dist: Warner Bros. Prod: Deborah Oppenheimer. Scr: Harris. DoP: Don Lenzer. Ed: Kate Amend. Music: Lee Holdridge. Narrator: Judi Dench.
Into the Arms Of Strangers tells the remarkable story of the 10,000 children, mainly Jewish, who were evacuated from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the nine months leading up to World War II. Harris, who won an Oscar for his previous documentary, The Long Way Home, about Jewish Holocaust survivors, looks a certain contender at the awards again this year.
Theatrical prospects for the new film are limited, though it should be of special interest in the UK, where the children were received (the US turned them away on the shameful grounds that separating them from their parents was "contrary to laws of God"), as well as in the countries they fled from. A long afterlife in ancillary outlets and educational institutions is guaranteed.
A leisurely opening sequence uses well-chosen archive footage to chronicle the rise of Hitler through a bewildered child's eyes, with images such as a bunch of balloons decorated with swastikas or a tiny toddler trying to imitate the Nazi salute. In fact the film's strength is this abundance of vivid, memorable detail, in both the historical clips and the enormously involving testimony of the witnesses themselves.
Twelve former children (or "Kinder") as well as two mothers and two men who helped organise the rescue operation relate their experiences with dignity and a surprising lack of self-pity. Gradually, Harris opens out his themes from the simple tale of escape and rescue to broader issues of moral responsibility, family and kinship.
Intimate and emotionally powerful in its own right, the material is given a slight over-emphasis and an intrusive sense of self-importance by Holdridge's lush music and the sometimes insistent voice-over commentary (European audiences may find these a greater irritant than American viewers). But the craftsmanship is, overall, impressive, with particular commendation due to Gary Rydstrom's brilliantly subtle sound design.