One Life is more complex than reviewers give it credit for

Review by Dr Amy Williams

While the film has received both positive and critical reviews each one seems to have missed what the film is actually about. Of course, the movie is about how Nicholas Winton, along with his fellow rescuers, saved Jewish children on the Czech version of the Kindertransport before the outbreak of the Second World War, but it is also about how we reconnect to a past which we pushed away, how we piece the stories back together, how Winton was genuinely troubled by how the ninth train did not leave Prague, and how the survivors and their families embrace the Winton family as their own. The film is not just about the Kindertransport rather it places the Kindertransport within the wider contexts of displacement in refugee camps before the war, the losses the Kinder experienced before their flight, and how many Kinder did not realise who had actually rescued them from Nazi persecution. It goes beyond telling a straightforward history of departure and arrival because we see what was happening to the children before they embarked upon their journeys as well as their later lives in Britain. It is therefore more than a useful beginners guide to understanding the Kindertransport because it reflects upon not only its history but also its memory. A memory which is not overwhelmingly affirmative.

Some have argued that the film is guilty of being too heroic, too positive because it is a feel-good movie about a plucky, young British man whose drive to carry out his humanitarian work seems to outweigh the horrors the children and their families faced. This has led some critics to suggest that it falls into the category of a “Schindler’s List” kind of film because the audience is left with a sense of hope. Comparison between Schindler and Winton though is rather inappropriate. While these two men rescued Jews they did so under very different circumstances. For example, while Winton travelled to Prague initially, he returned to the UK to carry out his work there which tragically came to an abrupt halt when the ninth train was not permitted to leave due to the declaration of war. Schindler on the hand worked during the war against Nazi policies. Winton was not taking the risk of trying to fool the Nazis into playing such games or trying to fool people into believing that he was not trying to save Jewish lives. Also, Winton had Jewish heritage while Schindler did not. Winton is presented as a modest, pleasant character whereas Schindler is presented as a “man about town” who womanizes, drinks, and is at times rather questionable. It has been suggested that a film should have been made about Trevor Chadwick because his muddled private life (difficult and complicated) could have echoed the messiness of Britain Holocaust history. But why should a story about someone who is more morally lax than Winton result in a more complex picture of rescue? Just because a rescuer is a morally questionable person does not make the act of rescue any less, or any more valuable, than when the rescuer is more modest and self-effacing. Winton is often presented as the ordinary man who did extraordinary things but the film suggests that his work to help Jewish children was part of a lifelong commitment to aiding those in need. His long life of reaching out to those less fortunate is not represented in a way which places him on a pedestal, quite the contrary: it shows that it something that was natural for him to do.

The view that the film presents a reassuring narrative because it only lightly explores antisemitism is also unfair. The film does not mislead audiences into thinking that it is about reconciliation and healing from the past rather it movingly depicts how Jews have been forced to flee their homes before the outbreak of the war. The scene where the Rabbi asks Winton if the children will be taken into and cared for in Jewish homes is impactful and by no means brief. It is here that Winton states how some of the children are living in squalid conditions and the threat of Nazi persecution is around the corner. Winton states that he “has seen this, and [he] cannot unsee it”. He has witnessed that being a Jew means that you are removed from society. It is also here where he talks about how he is a European, not a British or Englishman. This, for me, clearly shows how he empathises with the Jewish community and is thinking about his own Jewish heritage here. Yet it also suggests that this is a European problem, that antisemitism is not just in Germany or Czechoslovakia.

As we later see, Winton’s own German mother must constantly remind British officials about British values of kindness and respect for others because they are not living up to them. It is striking that a German-British man is in Prague putting these ideals into practice because Britain has failed to take these children into account. The film here offers a critique of how Britain, prior to the Winton Transports, was not acting to rescue Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. Jewish suffering is particularly conveyed by the story of how one little girl is looking after a baby which she found. It is also emotionally presented when a father eventually decides to trust Winton is not a Nazi official and hand his boys over to him and his team. There are also several heart-breaking scenes where the parents say their final farewells to their children. It is also made clear that the parents are not allowed to join their children because the British government will not allow them to travel on family visas. Thus, the film does give some reflection upon how some Jews were more desired than others. The film also lists all the documents that the children needed to gain a place on the Kindertransport which also shows how difficult it actually was for Jews to leave. Britain placed many bureaucratic hurdles in front of them.

One aspect of the film which many have critiqued is that it does not present the children’s lives in Britain after their arrival. Some have stated that we do not see how some of the children received inadequate care or that they were forcibly converted. The British national narrative of the Kindertransport often focusses on arrival as this watershed moment but the fact that arrival is only briefly presented seems to work against the often-rosy image we have of the children’s lives in Britain. For example, the scene where two sisters try to reassure one another as they are taken away by their separate foster families does hint at the children’s bewilderment and fears of being in a new land far away from home. Critics have also claimed that the children have a lack of agency but at several times throughout the film they try to console one another through looks and body language. That the adaptation process is not present in the film also links to how Winton knew very little about what happened to the children after they came to Britain. It is only later in life that he realises what happened to them. It is around the late 1980s and 1990s that the British public more widely come to understand what the children had experienced. So, the fact that the adaptation process is not shown seems to reflect the reality that Britain did not really care until much later what the Kinder went through.

The film, for me, is about memory. It is about how Winton is haunted by not saving all the children who had or did not have places on the Kindertransports. While we do not see the horrors of what happened to the children who did not board trains to life, we are informed that they did not survive. We are left with our own thoughts about how so many children were not able to travel to safety. “One Life” in this context comes to mean every one life that was not rescued. Everyone one life, a Kind saved meant that a parent’s life was often not. That the film ends with the Kinder coming to Winton’s home to spend time with him shows how many Kinder and their families did not have parents and grandparents to visit. Instead, the Winton family becomes their adopted family. While there is a sense of realisation that Winton himself sees that the children he rescued have grown into adulthood, the film also dwells upon the loss of the family members who are not in attendance. Who cannot thank Winton in person for saving their children’s, siblings’, grandchildren’s lives. Finally, just before the credits the audience is told that Winton decided to give the story and documents to Yad Vashem. He does not hand the material to a library or museum in Britain or the Czech Republic. Instead, it goes to Israel. It goes to a land where so many survivors moved to, helped to establish after the war, and raised their families in. Winton constantly repeats that enough is never enough because one life lost is far, far too many. An entire world is lost with one life. But these lives and so many others are remembered in Israel and beyond.
Thank you to Professor Bill Niven for speaking through the ideas in this piece.

Dr Amy Williams