Film Review: Papirosen

This distillation of 200 hours' worth of home movies probably means a lot for the family at its center, but less for those of us in the audience.

By any measure, the Solnicki family has a fascinating history. Originally citizens of Poland, patriarch Janek and his wife Pola fled that country—like so many European Jews—following World War II, eventually arriving in Argentina, where their son Victor married and raised his own now-grown children, Yanina and Gastón, the latter of whom serves as our director and guide through this highly personal tour of his clan's past and the present. Not an on-camera guide, mind you. Although we occasionally hear his voice emanating from behind the camera, Gastón studiously avoids placing himself at the center of this family portrait, which consists of scenes he's recording himself or older home movies of bygone days that his parents and grandparents have held onto. (That sets him apart from such autobiographical documentarians as Ross McElwee or Sarah Polley, who are—often for good reason—the focal points of their respective cinematic family albums.) All told, Solnicki had about 200 hours of footage to work with, from which he carved out a slender 74-minute feature that unfolds as a series of loosely connected vignettes as opposed to a sequential oral history. It's a striking choice, but ultimately distances the viewer from the Solnickis' story instead of drawing us in.

That's a shame, because many of the individual family members we meet are truly interesting. Grandmother Pola, for example, survived the concentration camps that claimed so many of her relatives' lives and her memories could be a separate film in and of themselves. Meanwhile, Victor (the movie's de-facto star) emerges as a complicated figure as well, a man who has built a new life for himself in Argentina but is still drawn back to the past. (Perhaps Papirosen's most effective vignette is one in which Victor stumbles upon a toy from his childhood—not one he owned, but similar to one he played with—in an antiques shop and brings it home, placing it on the shelf next to other long-vanished playthings from Poland he's managed to reassemble.) And while the director's mother, Mirta, seems to deliberately confine herself to the edges of the frame, when she does let her guard down she reveals herself to be a warm, funny presence. On the other hand, Gastón's sister Yanina never quite snaps into focus. The mother of a young son, she's in the process of separating from her husband, a source of significant conflict in her life that's not explored in any real detail either due to a lack of existing material or her reluctance to open up about it to her brother. It's here that the limitations of Solnicki's conceit for his film come to the fore, as one gets the sense that there's more to Yanina's story—and, by extension, the rest of the family—than the director is able or willing to tell.

The other character that remains frustratingly at a distance is Argentina itself. Although the circumstances of the family's immigration from Europe to South America are briefly touched on, along with their subsequent adjustment to their new surroundings, Solnicki proves surprisingly disinterested in providing a richer sense of the family's life in Argentina. What traditions—religious or otherwise—did they bring with them? (Late in the film, we see Victor leading a Passover Seder as if it’s the first he's ever done.) How did Victor and Mitra get by in their early years together? What were Yanina and Gastón's experiences as the first Solnicki generation to be born in the family's new homeland? All of these are potentially rich subjects that the film opts against exploring. That speaks to the primary problem with Papirosen: In exchange for an admittedly compelling intimacy, Solnicki has sacrificed an essential degree of context (not to mention curiosity) that would allow viewers to more fully absorb how this collection of isolated scenes and reminiscences represents his extended family's history. As it exists in this form, Papirosen feels like a private family joke that outsiders will never be able to entirely appreciate.