After the end of WWII, there existed a strong movement among a few filmmakers to examine wartime atrocities, but unlike the American studios, who largely used a kind of amorphous wartime trauma as the propellant for film noire villains or wounded heroes, European cities directly affected by the Nazis were among the first nations to openly and intelligently depict the racism of generations that led to the apathy which helped the Nazis brand, round up, and exterminate the Jews.
In the divided city of Berlin, some of the first films produced by the Allied and Soviet sectors dealt with these issues - Murderers Are Among Us/ Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946) being perhaps the best-known - but it's only in recent years that these social dramas are seeing the light of day on home video.
Part of that, certainly in North America, can be attributed to the kind of cinematic conflicts U.S. studios had switched to - like the Red Menace - and while film noire as a genre may have interpolated characters with a wartime past, the effects remained local; in stellar dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives, the evils of Nazism weren't the focus, and even dramas like The Young Lions left the Nazis and Concentration camps until the finale - itself serving to disgust a loyal German soldier and American G.I.s witnessing Nazi whining and tethered racism.
The fact it took TV movies, docudramas, and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List to address the Holocaust demonstrates that the subject, under the whip of the Church-influenced Production Code remained an unspoken taboo for U.S. filmmakers.
It kind of makes sense that European filmmakers would use the medium to explain and document human persecution, but the frankness, either granted to filmmakers or recognized by governments as a new powerful tool to instill a tightly-knit level of nationalism and tolerance (even superficial or cosmetic), is still a major shock to North American audience who've already experienced more recent and visceral dramas like The Grey Zone, and Schindler's List.
Border Street traces the racism within lower and middle class Polish society that already divided a culture as Polish and Jew; the fact no character acknowledges the two exist as one clearly illustrates the intolerance that exploded once the Germans invaded the country, branded all Jews, and shoved them into the Warsaw Ghetto before the uprising was quashed.
Part docu-style and gritty drama, a handful of characters - mostly youths - are interconnected through friendships and acts racial hatred, and when placed beside dramas like Kanal (smack in the middle of the Warsaw Uprising) and A Generation (the underground resistance while Nazis control the country through terror), these superb films, over a 10 year period reveal the extraordinary social history of Poland.
The director of those two films, Andrzej Wajda, was a student under Border Town 's director, Aleksander Ford, who at one time headed the country's government-controlled film studio, Film Polski, and the social conscience of the directors and their work is quite unmistakable.
Ford's career is sadly given a truncated bio on Polart's DVD - it jumps from mere mentions of his early work to one of his final films, and a closing note about his settling in Florida - and like many of the labels releases, this is one culturally important title in need of a Criterion-style release. Like Innocent Sorcerers , the source print for Border Street is well-worn, the PAL to NTSC transfer has visible pulsing & ghosting during panning shots, and the sound is a bit shrill - but these issues tend are less abrasive soon after the film's opening sequence.
(The print's quality, however, may be due to the fact the movie was banned by the Polish government, as Ford pretty much ignores Communistic propaganda, and focuses on the solidarity of persecuted Jews, without Soviet assistance, guidance, or effect, as was clearly evident in Wajda's A Generation.)
The English subtitles are mostly decent encapsulations of the film's potent dialogue exchanges, but there are many central discourses where subs are non-existent; and while they don't sweeten the racist terms, some of the German-language exchanges use a few swear words that aren't precisely subtitles. (One scene has a Nazi sweatshop owner calling a crippled man 'an old shit' before ordering his arrest and execution just outside the shop's back door.)
Other scenes are powerful for their simplicity, including a Nazi soldier who uses a dog trained to attack Jews on command (eerily echoing Sam Fuller's 1982 adaptation of Romain Gary's story, White Dog, which closely mirror's Border Street 's pivotal moment in which a racist-trained dog loses its automated hatred when saved by a Jewish teenage girl); and the sly ways in which jealous neighbours acquire the wealth, goods, and stature of ghetto-bound Jews (itself echoing the incarceration of Japanese Canadians and Americans which films of the era ignored).
Aleksander Ford's movie is extraordinarily powerful, and while many postwar social dramas have aged to their detriment, Border Street is a superior statement on the seeds of intolerance, and when street-level racism goes unchecked.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan