Holocaust films based on true stories gain emotional power from the veracity of the tales they tell, but can also become weighed down by facts — or the survivor’s memory of them. So it is in “Run Boy Run,” this beautifully shot French-German co-production of a young Jewish boy’s wartime survival in the Polish countryside.
Based on a bestselling book, itself based on the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor now living in Israel, “Run Boy Run” has two stars. One is the protagonist himself, Srulik, who is 8 years old when he escapes a Nazi roundup in his village. Exhorted by his father to survive no matter what, the boy spends the next six years on the run, animated by that singular directive.
The other star is the Polish landscape, its vast open spaces and bitterly cold winters rendered in panoramic splendor by cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk.
The Centerpiece narrative film in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, “Run Boy Run” makes its Northern California premiere July 29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, with subsequent screenings in Palo Alto and Berkeley.
After a brief stint with a band of homeless Jewish children living in the forest, Srulik is constantly on the move, finding work where he can, endearing himself to a series of Polish farm families with his quiet smile and eagerness to please. One brave woman in particular, the wife and mother of partisans, takes him in on a freezing winter day and teaches him how to pass as a Catholic, a life skill that saves him several times over.
As presented in this film, Srulik is a one-note character, albeit a charming and visually arresting one. Portrayed by twin Polish actors, his face is a constant study in watchfulness as he calculates the challenge of each new situation.
The pathos inherent in this survival narrative carries the story a long way, even though we have seen these characters before — the good Pole and the bad Pole, the world-weary Gestapo officer and the kindhearted peasant woman. It all works somehow, lifted up from stereotype by skillful acting and an almost languid style of directing that parallels the boy’s stubborn insistence on getting through each day.
The few instances of humor, the beauty of the boy’s face when it breaks out in a rare grin, are heartbreaking counterpoints to his harrowing daily reality: the awful, endless cold; his gratitude each time he finds an open door and a warm hearth; his mute acceptance when he is forced, yet again, to move on.
If “Run Boy Run” does not break any new ground, it is a satisfying and luxuriously presented vindication of Jewish identity that refuses to be snuffed out.
“Run Boy Run,” 6:15 p.m. July 29 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., 6 p.m. July 30 at CineArts in Palo Alto, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 7 at the California Theatre in Berkeley. The director will appear at the S.F. and Palo Alto screenings.
In German, Polish, Yiddish and Russian with English subtitles (Unrated, 108 minutes)