There have now been enough films about–or set in and around– the Holocaust that it is almost possible to group these films into subgenres. Simon & The Oaks, directed by Lisa Ohlin and adapted from the novel by Marianne Fredriksson views the events (at least at first) through the eyes of a child (Au revoir les enfants; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), is set in occupied territory away from most of the fighting and horrors (The Silence of the Sea), and spends most of its second half chronicling the survivor’s guilt that plague those who lived through it (Sophie’s Choice, The Reader, Adam Resurrected).
Honestly, Simon carries its setting like an albatross it can never quite slip, which is a shame because there are some interesting character dynamics at play which could make for a powerful (or at least engaging) melodrama if the film would pick one of them and let itself develop it.
The eponymous protagonist is a Swedish boy, a quarter Jewish, who is adopted by parents whose efforts to keep him safe during the war create family secrets that sow seeds of disharmony throughout the second half of the film. While at school, Simon befriends Isak, whose father is a Jewish bookseller who has also fled Nazi persecution. The tentative friendship between Simon and Isak sets up the best parts of the film–a sequence in which Simon’s adoptive parents agree to have Isak live with them in case the Nazis start rounding up Jews in Sweden.
What is fascinating and somewhat touching about these scenes are the ways in which people from different economic classes find a way to get past their own resentments and issues to do what they must–allow themselves to take help from those they would prefer to have little to do with. Isak’s father brings gifts each time he visits, including perfume for Simon’s mother, a gesture we see is born out of guilt but which pricks the pride of the country family. Simon’s father shakes Isak out of his depression and lethargy by pressuring him to work as an assistant in his workshop; Isak’s father is able to take the more musically inclined Simon to hear orchestra music. Each father resents the other and yet recognizes his son needs something he cannot provide.
At that point the film hovers on the brink of success, but then suddenly the war is over, secrets are revealed, tearful accusations and reconciliations are made, and Simon travels to explore his roots and discover sexuality. This part of the film is most easily recognizable as having come from a novel, and it is the part that suffers the most from the lack of interior monologue that a novel can provide. That the natural adolescent moving away from parents is exacerbated by the trauma of what the kids went through is underscored by the second half’s best scene, a monologue by a shocked Auschwitz survivor who calls her father a coward. It is hard enough in young adulthood to view one’s parents charitably, harder still when their actions must be filtered through the lens of an extraordinary circumstances.
Simon & The Oaks never quite lives up to its early promise, but it is a thoughtful, earnest film nevertheless.