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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Full Frame
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 63.46)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • German: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, German, English - Hearing Impaired, German - Hearing Impaired
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 2 Audio commentary
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • 3 Photo gallery
  • Animated menus
  • DVD-ROM features
  • 5 Interviews
  • Web access
  • Filmographies

Into the Arms of Strangers - Stories of the Kindertransport

Warner Bros./Warner Bros. . R4 . COLOR . 112 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

With the distasteful politics and prejudices of the recent Australian election still ringing in the ears of those who think before reacting, the timing of the release of Into The Arms Of Strangers seems almost ironically apt. Written and directed by acclaimed documentarian Mark Jonathan Harris and released last year to great acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (his earlier film The Long Way Home also scored an Oscar), it’s a film that tells the stories of refugees from another generation - refugees that were, like those of today, fleeing a tyrannical and cold-blooded regime by any means possible. The difference here was that, at least in the case of the children, they were cautiously welcomed into a country (in this case, England) with qualified Government support. Some of those same people are still alive today, and Into The Arms Of Strangers presents their very personal and very different stories from their own lips.

In 1938, the sadistic reign of the Nazis in Germany had come to a head for the large Jewish population of that country and those subsequently occupied by Hitler. While war had yet to break out, the Jews had already been cruelly discriminated against, attacked and segregated with the full support of the law and much of the rest of the population, culminating in the violence of “Kristallnacht” on November 9th of that year - a vicious pogrom which saw Jewish businesses, homes and property vandalised and looted, women and children brutalised, synagogues burned to the ground and countless people murdered at the hands of Nazi stormtroopers while spectators looked on. Even worse was to come, but this was the turning point for many - it was time to leave Germany. Unfortunately, that was not made easy - finding a country that would take non-skilled refugees was extremely difficult, and Nazi exit-visa policies didn’t make it any easier. But for their children - also persecuted by their former school friends and playmates as they almost overnight became “different” - there was more of a chance, thanks to the British Government, who were appalled by the stories of persecution and violence filtering in from Germany. A program was set up where Britain agreed to find foster homes for the child refugees and the Nazis agreed to let them leave (albeit with few possessions); this was dubbed the Kindertransport (or “Children’s Transport”). Until the outbreak of full-scale war in 1939, some 10,000 children were evacuated from Germany, leaving behind their parents, friends, and their lives as they knew them. Into The Arms Of Strangers is their story - and it’s a largely untold World War 2 story that is, in a way, more moving and affecting than the many already told of heroism and sacrifice.

Harris and producer Deborah Oppenheimer (whose own mother was a Kindertransport survivor) have crafted an intelligent, heartfelt documentary that does not attempt to be an historical document, but rather an emotional one. Some of those 10,000 Kindertransport children - now old, a couple of them have already died since this film was made - were extensively interviewed about their recollections of their experiences, and those memories are interspersed with copious historical footage and photographs - both from archives and from the interviewees’ personal collections.

It may sound like a dull, talking-head-filled premise for a documentary, but in reality it’s a superbly crafted work, thanks not only to the skill of writer/director Harris and his team (including some remarkable work by editor Kate Amend, who makes the many still pictures and the myriad archival footage come to life seamlessly) but also to the interviewees themselves, who offer rare insight into an almost-forgotten part of history - also shedding light on the experience of ordinary people during the war in the process. There are fascinating stories here - recollections of Germany in the dark months leading up to the war, memories of the way they were welcomed - and in some cases, almost enslaved - in England, a story from a woman who was pulled off the train that would take her to England at the last minute by her father and then survived a succession of concentration camps, and even a story from one of those considered as a potential “enemy alien” by England once war broke out, and subsequently shipped off on a crammed boat (the HMT Dunera), a horror journey lasting months that ended up in Australia - but not before the ship’s cargo of hapless German refuges was fired upon by the Nazis and nearly sunk. All of this is superbly integrated with visual illustration, sound, music, narration - by Judi Dench - and an insightful sense of subtlety; this film is, ultimately, an intensely moving and uplifting experience.

  Video
Contract

Presented in its original production ratio of 1.33:1 (and therefore not 16:9 enhanced), Into The Arms Of Strangers is given a superb video transfer for this DVD release. Produced on film (but using occasional digital video segments for effect), the visuals here are far from glossy - a muted, almost pastel colour tone is used throughout (this is deliberate) and those expecting to be knocked off their seats by vibrant, sharp colour are going to be disappointed; the fact that a good percentage of the running time is taken up by archival black-and-white footage and photographs in varying condition (but well transferred) has obviously prompted the producers to exercise restraint when it came to the look of the colour segments of the production. Even the opening Warner Brothers logo is in monochrome here.

Talk of film artefacts is irrelevant in this case; if you can’t handle scratches and other film damage caused by time, you should either be watching something else or - preferably - recognise the nature of what it is you’re watching. For the perfectionists, though, the modern interview footage is pretty close to flawless and the film as a whole has been transferred to video from a pristine source. You’ll see some grain throughout, but that’s probably because the interview footage was shot on 16mm.

The layer change is one of the best-placed and best-executed you’ll see (or not see, as the case may be); it’s hidden well in a moment where only a still frame is displayed on screen, without sound; it’s navigated extremely quickly and smoothly.

  Audio
Contract

It’s rare indeed for a documentary to be offered with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio as this one is - but when you discover that the sound designer and mixer was none other than the incomparable Gary Rydstrom, you know you’re in for a rare treat. Rydstrom, if the name is not familiar to you, was responsible for the electrically-charged soundtracks of some of the biggest movies of recent years - The Phantom Menace, A.I., Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Jurassic Park, the Toy Story films, X-Men and dozens more. Indeed, this documentary is something of a change of pace for a man who is the eternal friend of anyone with a 5.1 sound system. But he’s invaluable here - Rydstrom has had to craft much of this soundtrack from scratch, putting sound effects atop silent film and still photos, merging subtle effects with interviews to help evoke atmosphere, and working with the limited resources still available of actual sound footage from that era. He’s done a superb job, too - this is a gorgeous, subtle and utterly involving soundtrack, simultaneously honouring the intentions of the film and vitally enhancing its message.

The music score, by Lee Holdridge, is low-key and well-placed, with the evocative opening and closing theme helping greatly to set to tone of the film.

The soundtrack here is mastered at quite a low level; some may find that they’ll need to wind the amp up a few notches to properly enjoy it.

  Extras
Contract

Mirroring the content of the US DVD release of the film, Warner Home Video has commendably included a superb array of extra material on this DVD. It’s unusual for a documentary disc to have much at all in the way of extras, but here there’s plenty to explore after you’ve watched the main feature.

Audio Commentary: Mark Jonathan Harris (writer/director) and Deborah Oppenheimer (producer): In the first of two wonderfully informative commentaries, Oppenheimer and Harris talk on a scene-by-scene basis about how they put the film together, the difficulties and challenges they faced both technically and personally, and their memories of the long time they spent meeting and talking to the Kindertransport survivors. This commentary is authored on the disc as a separate title, using a subtitle stream to indicate points where the viewer can hit the “enter” key to get more background on a particular element of what’s being discussed - a very nice idea.

Audio Commentary: Kate Amend (editor), Gary Rydstrom (sound designer and re-recording mixer), Corrinne Collett (archival researcher) and Lee Holdridge (composer): A more technical offering, but no less fascinating, this commentary offers reams of information on the effort that went into the film, with the rare chance to hear Gary Rydstrom speak about his work a particular treat for this reviewer. All four are consistently interesting, though, and this commentary really conveys just how much work goes into what many may see as “just another documentary”.

Interview: Lord Richard Attenborough: Not an interview, really - this is actually a four and a half minute story told to camera by noted director and actor Attenborough, one which leaves one wishing there was more to be heard here from the man. Shot on film, this is well worth taking the time to watch.

Additional Interviews: Over 14 minutes of additional interview footage (once again all shot on film) presented in four sections, and encompassing five of the people interviewed in the film itself. Despite not being as polished production-wise (and also more colour-saturated, giving you an idea of how the interview film looked before post-production) this is all compelling stuff.

Photo Gallery: A small collection of still images grouped into three categories - Historical Background, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Exhibition and Production Stills. All three sections are fairly limited in scope, and are encoded, unusually, as standard video streams, so that they can be watched without user interaction (the viewer can skip to successive photos with the next-chapter button, though).

The Kinder: 29 pages containing biographies of the various children that are the subject of this documentary. The last page also offers a link to a two and a half minute mini-documentary about the emotional reunion at the film’s New York premiere of one of the Kinder and her best friend after 62 years apart.

The Parents: Two pages with bios of the parents in England that took in some the children featured in the film.

The Rescuers: Five pages offering bios of the two “rescuers” featured in the film - those that organised the Kindertransport from the German side.

Awards: Two pages listing the various awards that have been won by the film.

Premiere Footage: Two sections here; first, there’s a two and a half minute compilation of arrivals at and comments on the London premiere of the film. Then there’s a longer (over seven minutes) offering from the Berlin premiere, with some pointed speeches from Time Warner’s Gerald Levin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Warner obviously threw a lot of resources into launching this film, and it’s all on show here. It’s not the glitz that’s the attraction, though, but rather what is said in the midst of it.

Theatrical Trailer: A two minute, full frame trailer that achieves the near-impossible by trying to sell such a complex film to a bite-size audience; it succeeds. Audio is Dolby Surround.

DVD-ROM Features: Using the current version of the Interactual Player (which we’re happy to report that, while ridiculously slow and riddled with bugs, does not interfere with the operation of any other DVD software you may happen to have installed), you can play back the disc on your desktop or access the online “study guide” for the film. We would have greatly preferred to see the study guide included on the DVD itself (it’s actually quite an interesting read even for non-students who are just curious about the events depicted in the film, and once the site inevitably vanishes this component of the DVD will be as good as useless) and as this guide takes the form of one large or four smaller four PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files, there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been. As it stands, if you want the guide you’ll need to download 1.6MB of stuff on your own time. Making your internet connection effort worthwhile, however, is the offer via the same site of a video chat session with the producer and director, and excerpt from the associated book, audio clips from the music score and a few other titbits. The site, written in Flash and with the Interactual browser "skinned" to match, can also be accessed by those without a DVD-ROM drive - or, indeed, without the DVD - from the link in the “related links” section of the page you are reading now.

  Overall  
Contract

An intensely moving, incredibly compelling and exceptionally well-made documentary, Into The Arms Of Strangers is a masterful telling of what seems, on the surface, to be a very simple story. Where this film stands apart from others is in its unique focus on the point of view of the innocents caught up in war; there’s never been a more relevant time to watch it than right now. They may have come under fire lately for some poor region 4 release decisions, but in this case Warner’s DVD presents the film superbly (and in PAL!), with a wonderful, useful collection of extra features that make this DVD a must for anyone who needs some reassurance that the human race is alive and well.


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