My Mother's Courage (1996)
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Really More Like Dumb Luck
One of the less explored questions of the Holocaust, because we don't much like the implications, is how so many people were able to pretend the whole thing didn't happen while it was in the middle of happening. This is on both sides. Neither the average gentile nor the average Jew was willing to admit what was going on until they could no longer deny it. More is written about how the gentiles were able to ignore it, up to and including the leaders of the various Allied nations. But the underlying theme of much of the literature of Jewish Holocaust history was the belief that the Germans couldn't possibly be doing things so bad as rumour said. Every time things got worse, there was this prevailing belief that this was as bad as they could possibly get. And this is how you can watch someone shot in front of you because he was trying to pick a flower for a pretty girl and still be willing to declare that something wasn't fair.
Elsa Tabori (Pauline Collins) is a dignified little Jewish housewife in Budapest in 1944. She acts as though there is no reason for life to go on any way but as it always has. Oh, she has to wear this star now, but so what? And then one day, while she is on her way to go see her sister, who is epileptic and not feeling terribly well, she is arrested. There is a bit of a wacky mix-up on the streetcar as they are taking her to the station, and the streetcar operator (not credited so that I can identify her) suggests a way for her to get away. But Mrs. Tabori doesn't believe she can really escape, so she waits for the police officers as she is supposed to. And she gets on the train as she is supposed to. The train is definitely a deportation train, and it is probably taking is passengers to Auschwitz. But Mrs. Tabori, like the others on the train, cannot believe that anything bad can possibly happen, and the rumour spreads that they are being shipped to the Swedish countryside.
Oh, getting mad wouldn't do Mrs. Tabori any good. In point of fact, getting mad was a lot more likely to get her shot. But she gets raped on the train, and she doesn't say anything, because as a child, she was taught to do as she was told and not question what happened. She is an utterly passive figure. It's also possible that her passivity is what will doom I believe Maria (Natalie Morse), a diplomat's daughter who ends up in the group through sheer happenstance. The girl isn't Jewish. She isn't on the list. But Mrs. Tabori tells her not to make any waves, not to bring attention to herself. It's possible that an attempt to bring attention to herself would kill the girl, but it's probable that not doing so killed her. And after all, Mrs. Tabori's outcome wasn't what anyone should have expected it to be, and she didn't use it to help the girl when she could have. Should have. She was pushed into saving herself, and she didn't save anyone else.
Yes, I know. This is the true story of a real person. George Tabori was in London at the time that his father was dying at Auschwitz. His mother really survived, and I have no reason to believe that this sequence of events is at least part of how she managed it. At least, no reason other than that the story is ridiculous and unbelievable. This is, as we know, no reason for it not to also be true. Stranger things happen. I am left with all sorts of questions that there is no one left to answer; everyone who could is long dead. This story is how one woman was fortunate enough to survive one moment--and it is fortune, not the courage the title claims. But there were other moments between the day we see here and liberation, and dumb luck wasn't all it would take to survive them all. A lot of other people had dumb luck [i]and[/i] courage and didn't survive. Didn't leave so much as a body in a shallow grave. I didn't like this woman enough to want her to manage it, and yet truth doesn't rely on what we want.
I was saying yesterday how seldom the movies I've come across are about mothers. I think the problem with this one is that it is a mother who is not respected. I mean, I certainly don't respect her. It is not as though George Tabori has to tell us about his mother because of how wonderful she was, because of how much she inspired him. She didn't. And he wasn't in Budapest at the time--he was one of the truly lucky ones, the ones who escaped the Nazis into other countries. This is a mother who was in the right place at the right time. I think possibly the really good mothers get taken for granted by their creative offspring, because there sure aren't a lot of movies about them. Or books. Maybe it's the differing criteria in our society between what makes a good mother and a good father. Maybe it's that one of the cultural points of our society is that a good mother should just fade into the background, and there's not much of a movie in that.
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