When his family is arrested by the Gestapo, Polish-Jewish teenager Solomon Perel spends the remainder of the war alternately passing himself off as a member of the Stalinist Komsomol and the Nazi Hitlerjugend in order to survive.
This tale of chance, coincidence and courage would seem like an incredible contrivance were it not based on the remarkable wartime experiences of Solomon Perel (who's latterly seen on an Israeli riverbank). Born near Braunschweig to Polish-Jewish parents on Hitler's birthday, Solly owed his survival more to his non-descript physicality and unformed personality than his calculating ingenuity and linguistic skill. Perel never thought of himself as a hero and Agnieszka Holland concurs in his verdict by depicting him as Zelig incarnate. Some critics denounced this approach for touting conformism, but Holland rejected their reading as flatly as she did that of the feminists who saw the film as a treatise on the trouble caused by penises.
First seen during his circumcision, Solly is cast adrift from his family on the day before his bar mitzvah. Yet, he undergoes a form of baptism that seemingly anoints him for preservation, as he sinks into the river at the start of his chameleonic adventures. This sequence initiates the series of cultural, spiritual and idealogical clashes that Solly experiences as he passes from being a Young Pioneer in an orphanage in Soviet-occupied Grodno to becoming Wehrmacht mascot Josef `Jupp' Peters, a member of Poland's Germanic minority, the Volksdeutsche. However, he constantly runs the risk of being exposed and it's telling that Zenek (Andrzej Mastalerz), the Catholic Polish patriot, attempts to betray him, while Robert (Andre Wilms), the closet gay in Nazi uniform, respects his secret. Yet, these rare intrusions of human instinct are soon replaced by ethereal irony, as Solly's attempt to defect to the Russians results in his becoming an accidental hero and more of an insider than ever. But, even then, there are more twists of fate awaiting him, as he witnesses the Lodz ghetto where his parents will perish and is again spared unmasking by a chance bomb. However, Holland carefully maintains the balance between fact and surreality by inserting dream sequences, in which Hitler waltzes with Stalin, the Judas-like Zenek is cruficied as Christ, and Hitler cowers in an implied bid to prevent the revelation of his own racial impurity.
The execution could be improved, but the sheer zip of the real life story just about carries this wartime tale along.