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TJFF 2012: ‘The Last Flight of Petr Ginz’ highlights the best qualities of humanity

The Last Flight of Petr Ginz

Directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts

USA, 2012

An old adage stipulates how history is written by the winners, so it’s extremely rare when it’s told by someone who has suffered the ultimate loss. Not since Anne Frank has there been such a deeply affecting postmortem autobiography, but in The Last Flight of Petr Ginz, the story of a vivacious 14-year old boy from Prague is just as poignant and tragic. As well as being an astute condemnation of fascist depravity, the fleetingly short life of Petr Ginz also highlights the best qualities and examples of what it means to be human.

When Petr, an avid admirer of the works of Jules Verne, was just 14, he had already written five novels and kept a diary chronicling the Nazi occupation of Prague. By 16, while interned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, he had produced more than 170 drawings and paintings, as well as editing the Vedem, a subversive underground youth magazine. Using his artwork and literature, directors Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts, quite literally, paint a vivid picture of the maltreatment and horror of the Holocaust.

Petr, far left, with his family

Although Petr eventually dies at the gas chambers in Auschwitz, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz is definitively his story; a testament to its touching ubiquity and to the directing ability of Dickson and Roberts.

As in life, the film starts off with a chipper, happy tone, mirroring the simplicity and naïveté of Petr’s childhood innocence. Here, Petr talks of his amazement at life, the dynamics of his family, and affection for his beloved Prague. We get a sense of the precociousness and vitality in Petr, which proves to be a stark contrast to his later circumstances, because as history unfolds, the tone gets precipitously darker.

When the Nazis obtrude into Prague, his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Because his father is Jewish, Petr, in turn, is branded the same. He is forced to wear the Star of David on his clothing, relinquish his possession at no compensation, and is forced to move to a ghetto. This change is so abrupt, yet so genuine, we are stunned by the sudden change in atmosphere; surely a feeling that Petr himself must have felt.

However, his diaries provide a limited account of his experiences because, as the film suggests, they only detail facts, and not his emotions. Consequently, Dickson and Roberts add further dimension to the film by incorporating Petr’s work.

By showing some of his illustrations and artwork, we are able to understand his feelings and sentiments. We see images of the drab, colourless ghetto, so we understand his sense of dread and hopelessness. But conversely, we get pictures of Prague and of nature filled with bright, vibrant colours, indicating Petr’s underlying optimism for his city and the future.

Some of his works are actually brought to life thanks to the use of clever animation. For instance, one of his novels, A Visit from Prehistory, is about a giant robotic creature that resembles a dinosaur. Named Kadu, it’s used by a government official to terrorize the natives in the Belgian Congo. By animating the story with Petr’s pre-existing illustrations, and by editing them together with footage of Hitler and the Nazis, we come to understand the story as a political allegory. Even the added animation is appropriate because it is consistent with the style and art direction of Petr’s work.

All of this enhances the storytelling by making it extremely personal. The film makes us understand Petr more comprehensively, by making us understand his situation and inner thoughts in amazing detail. This leads to a deep and tangible emotional investment, which makes the tragedy more affecting. Contrary to its conceit, the film doesn’t tell the story about a boy. Rather, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz tells a story by one.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for the TJFF