Auschwitz is now essentially a human life ago. Or you can count differently: There are 75 years between 1945 and 2020, which corresponds to the succession of three generations. Assuming someone survived. In the film “Evolution” by Kata Wéber and Kornél Mundruczó, three episodes correspond to these three generations. In the first, men in uniform enter a room that we are supposed to understand as a former gas chamber. They scrub, scour, do the dishes, they mess with the walls and the floor, but they don’t get the room as clean as they might have imagined. On the contrary, the remnants of hair are coming out of the joints, the strands are getting thicker and more tangled, it’s maddening. But then there is a redeeming turning point: As improbable as that may sound, a child is found. The prehistoric-looking concrete opens up a gap, the room of death is not ultimately ominous. A living creature has escaped the slaughter and is now leaving the realm of barracks and annihilation. From the air, the camera follows a car that seems to drive on a border between the documentary camp images and the later reconstructions – Auschwitz may have been a human lifetime ago, but on the computer it is timeless.
After this strongly symbolic prologue (the child’s name is also Éva!), two longer parts follow, which are set and filmed in Berlin and in which we should probably recognize the “evolution” that owes this rescue. First it’s about Léna, Éva’s daughter, who comes to her mother to pick her up for a public tribute. Éva is already a bit doddering, sitting around in her underwear most of the time, passively resisting attempts to make her a positive example for today’s commemorative politics.
Mundruczó, who counts among the formalists in contemporary cinema, tells all this in a long sequence that suggests uncut improvisation, a play between levels of reality that finally culminates in two moments that obviously go beyond the semblance of realism. The camera drops out of the window, tilts on its own axis and takes a look at the two women from a position that actually cannot exist – floating in the air, as if from an angelic presence. It almost seems like a consequence of helplessness with this second part that it ends with a kind of symbolic catastrophe, which can perhaps also be read as the hysterical dissolution of the restless Léna.
Finally, the third part is about Jonás, Léna’s son and thus Éva’s grandson, a student, a sensitive outsider who carries on his family’s identity issues: “Tell me what I am,” he begs once his mother. Here, too, technical and narrative ambition are combined, as in “Pieces of a Woman” (2020), which qualified for Netflix with its extravagant drama and is now available there as a lonely relic of European female auteur cinema. Jonás is supposed to take part in a lantern parade, an originally Christian or Christmas or Advent ritual, which at the same time seems to celebrate a childish naivety (“rabimmel rabammel rabumm”) that does not correspond to adolescents at all. On the edge of this train, Jonás gets closer to a classmate named Yasmin, who in turn is clearly placed alongside his precarious Jewish identity to supplement and comment: as a representative of Muslim Germany, she has an important function in the simulation game “Evolution”.
Kata Wéber (script) and Kornél Mundruczó (director) clearly want to address very fundamental questions and are looking for an open form: What does it mean to live with this legacy of the Shoah? Is that even conceivable? And can one leave it to the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices to define who is Jewish? With her mother’s multiple forged birth certificates, Éva is no longer sure who she is, or at least she doesn’t want to be committed to something in her old age that her mother wanted to protect herself from. The safety from racist persecutors turns out to be the insecurity that characterizes life after survival and into the following generations.
The problematic concept of “evolution” is perhaps meant to suggest that a more general humanism could prevail over identifying racism. In any case, that would be an interpretation suggested by Jonás, who, with Yasmin in the sign of the lantern and the association space of a search for hostels, could set off into a world society in which cultural evolution could finally overcome the differences that, in fanatical blindness, up to the gas chambers. In this evolution, however, a positive Jewish self-understanding would only be combinatorial material. All in all, a rather strange film, more of a construct with strong theses than a comprehensible observation of people.