Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller?

Director: Daniel Howald (Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021

Alice Miller was a Swiss psychologist and media personality who was a strong campaigner against child abuse – writing open letters to the pope and Tony Blair alongside her many tv appearances. Which is somewhat ironic to her son Martin, who, listening to one of her descriptions of abuse remarks: “my mother is describing exactly what she has done and says you may not do that. And that is my tragedy.”

The film is not exactly clear whether Miller’s sins were of commission or omission – that is, whether she psychically hurt Martin, or just watched on impotently while his father regularly hit him. She was certainly emotionally distant. Every so often the great Katharina Thalbach reads in voiceover Alice’s cold letters to her son, like this one: “Let us separate now, as adult people do, when they realise that it is impossible for them to communicate with each other. Your mother.”

Early on in the film, just as we are thinking that this will be mainly about Martin’s difficult relationship with his mother, it takes a huge left turn. For this is not primarily a film about Alice Miller – not as such. It is about Alicja Englard, later Alicja Rostowska, the Jewish Polish girl and young woman who was going to grow into Alice Miller. If you believe that the child maketh the man, this is an extreme case study.

The film has already told us that Alice found it almost impossible to tell the truth, and here we learn a little why. On 1 September 1939, when the Nazis entered Poland, they very quickly erected Jewish ghettoes, from which they would later deport people to Treblinka concentration camp. The young Alicja managed to borrow the ID of an Aryan friend who looked like her, to go to Warsaw where she organised fake ID for her family. This was the reason for her first change of name.

For most of the film, Martin is accompanied by Irenka Taurek, Alice’s cousin, who is literally only about half his size. After picking her up in the USA where she now lives, Martin goes first to Berlin to talk to Alice’s psychiatrist, then joins Irenka in Poland where they learn about their extraordinary family. Their conversations with various historians are conducted in several languages, and often there is no common language where everyone can follow what is going on.

Irenka was close to Alicja when they were in Poland, but their paths diverged. Irenka was only 5 when they parted, but she already obviously identifiable as Jewish. She escaped with her family in a car headed East. Alicja had a chance to travel with them, but decided to stay with her family. After all, this was only a temporary aberration, wasn’t it?

In Warsaw, Alicja worked as a teacher in the anti-fascist underground. Or maybe she just cleaned schools. As she used a fake ID, its hard to track her movements down. She also met one, possibly two Andrej Millers. One was Martin’s father, her future husband. The other a collaborator with the Nazis. This may have been the same person – according to official records these people were born on different days in difference places, but there were a lot of necessary lies told at the time.

This is a film that is much more about the chase than the capture, so in a sense it is not important whether Martin’s father was a collaborator. He is already trying to process bigger things. He always used to think that the children of Holocaust victims could understand what happened to their parents, even if they did not have the direct experience. Now he’s starting to doubt this view.

This is a film about what we inherit from our parents and how. Early on, we hear a speech from Alice, arguing that all child abusers are people who have been abused themselves. The film does not pursue this question, but what must this mean for Martin’s vision of himself? Martin, like Alice, and like many people that we see in the film, is also a psychiatrist. As we witness this fascinating and tragic story, we get the feeling that some people are thinking very hard about it.

Growing up, Martin did not know he was Jewish. His father was a Catholic, and his mother’s history was simply not discussed within the family. So most of what we learn in the film is being learned by Martin at the same time. This means of necessity that stories are told and while we see initial reactions, we don’t get thought out explanations of why they happened. I think the film is stronger for this.

The British tv show “Who do you think you are?” has shown us that what sounds a little dull at first sight – people talking to historians about their ancestors, can unearth extraordinary stories. The tv series often depends on their subject being a minor celebrity, the film retains our interest by the immensity of the story.

By the end of the film, it is less that we fully understand why Alice Miller treated her children as she did, and more a lack of comprehension how someone could live the life of Alicja Rostowska and emerge without emotional scars. This is a deeply moving film that deserves to be widely seen.

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