#432) Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)
Directed & Written by Mark Jonathan Harris
Class of 2014
As always with my posts about WWII – especially the holocaust – I am in no way an expert on any of these topics, and this post should be the beginning of your quest for knowledge, not the end.
The Plot: “Into the Arms of Strangers” tells the underappreciated history of the Kindertransport; the organized transportation of 10,000 Jewish children out of Nazi Germany and other Nazi occupied countries to England. Through interviews with surviving children, as well as organizer Nicholas Winton and one surviving foster parent, we learn about life under Nazi rule and Kristallnacht, the beginnings of the Kindertransport’s brief operation, the effect living in England with foster parents had on the children (aka “kinder”), and the struggles faced by returning home to a changed family or no family at all. Narrated by Dame Judi Dench, and made in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives an overview and calls the film “a tribute not only to the children who survived, but to the people of England who agreed to rescue the refugees when U.S. leadership would not.” That’s right, a write up on a U.S. government website quietly criticized the U.S. government. Bravo.
But Does It Really?: When chronicling WWII, it’s easy to focus on the major figures like Hitler or the major events like D-Day, but programs like the Kindertransport rarely get the attention they deserve. “Into the Arms of Strangers” was an eye opening experience to how these children survived the war, from the perspective of the children themselves. “Strangers” earns its NFR standing thanks to its chronicling of this moment in history, as well as representation of filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris.
Everybody Gets One: After brief stints as a crime reporter and investigative journalist, Mark Jonathan Harris pivoted to documentary filmmaking upon recognizing that filming recurring events looked like cinema verite on film. Deborah Oppenheimer was primarily a television producer (most notably for “The Drew Carey Show”), but was inspired to produce this documentary following the death of her mother, a former kinder who never spoke of her experience. Oppenheimer used her sitcom work as a chance to laugh while immersing herself in her wartime research. Actor Judi Dench was fresh off her Oscar winning cameo in “Shakespeare in Love” when she narrated “Into the Arms of Strangers”.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Arms of Strangers” won the 2000 Oscar for Best Documentary. Unlike most documentarians on this list, Mark Jonathan Harris was no stranger to the Oscars. He had previously won for his 1967 short “The Redwoods”, and his 1997 pro-Israel film “The Long Way Home” also won Best Documentary (though only the producers of that film received the award).
- Mark Jonathan Harris’s approach to the talking head documentary is a bit different than his peers; he does several interviews before filming to determine which subjects are best at telling their stories on-camera. On the day of shooting, he will talk to his subjects for up to an hour before rolling the cameras, so that they appear more comfortable, and therefore are more candid in their discussion.
- Kindertransport organizer Norbert Wollheim was the first subject interviewed for the film, as the filmmakers were informed he was in ill health. Wollheim died five weeks after his interview.
- “The first thing that happens after a disaster breaks: nothing happens.” NOTE: I’m writing this during the “shelter in place”/COVID-19 outbreak, so that line really resonated with me.
- The film makes extensive use of archival footage from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They even find footage of one of the kinder interviewed in the film! In rare instances where no footage or audio was sufficient, some Errol Morris-esque recreations were shot.
- Like the NFR write-up, I would like to remind you readers that America did not assist in the kindertransport. The Wagner-Rogers Bill was introduced to Congress in 1939, and was to see 20,000 Jewish children sent to America over the course of two years. The bill was blocked by North Carolina Senator/noted anti-Semite Robert Rice Reynolds. He’s been dead for almost 60 years, but it bares repeating: Fuck you, Senator Reynolds.
- The key to the film’s success is focusing on the children. With a few brief asides from foster parent Mariam Cohen, the entire film focuses on the war from the children’s perspective. It makes the film less of a history lesson and more a personal, emotional experience.
- I learned a lot about WWII from watching this film. Perhaps the most unsettling of my discoveries was the Theresienstadt Ghetto, a concentration camp used by the Nazis primarily to fool the rest of the world into thinking their camps were humane. This film simultaneously highlights the best and worst in humanity.
- “Into the Arms of Strangers” might be the only movie on this list with a study guide. Released in 2001, the movie’s official study guide is available for free through the film’s website. Go and educate yourself!
- Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer reunited for the 2018 HBO documentary “Foster” about America’s foster care system.
- Organizer Nicholas Winton received many honors for his participation in the kindertransport (earning the nickname “British Schindler”), and was even reunited with some of the children he helped on the British TV programme “That’s Life!”
- Like those who survived the Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah, many of the kind grew up to become artists and activists. Many of those activists used their voice to encourage countries to take in refugees persecuted in their home countries.