Into the Arms of Strangers Stories of the Kindertransport

USA 2000

Reviewed by Stella Bruzzi


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

This film documents the events surrounding the Kindertransport, the transportation of Jewish children out of Germany and its occupied lands to Britain immediately prior to the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Following Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish riot which occurred in Berlin in November 1938, a British cabinet committee decide that Britain can take in unaccompanied Jewish refugee children under the age of 17. The first train leaves Berlin for Britain in December 1938. Soon trains are leaving from Austria and Czechoslovakia. Many of the children sought to save their parents too by trying to find them work or sponsors in Britain, but most failed to bring them over. Few children were reunited with their parents after the war.


Into the Arms of Strangers is a compelling, gruelling documentary about the British government's attempt to provide asylum for refugee Jewish children from Germany and its occupied lands just before World War II. Here director Mark Jonathan Harris (whose previous documentary The Long Way Home investigated the plight of Holocaust survivors) uses archive footage, the compassionate narration of Judi Dench and, most importantly, interviews with survivors to describe what became known as the Kindertransport .

Despite the simplicity and familiarity of this format, Into the Arms of Strangers, in keeping with the tonal complexity of recent, particularly US, film treatments of the Holocaust, is a feel-good tragedy: the film satisfies our primary urge to be affected by the horror of the Nazi atrocities while sustaining the myth that, had we been there, we would have either survived or helped save those who otherwise were killed. A dualism is at work in Into the Arms of Strangers: on the one hand, there is the sentiment expressed by Norbert Wollheim, an organiser of the Kindertransports in Berlin, that "survival is an accident"; on the other, the view of Alexander Gordon who, having been orphaned, sent to England and arrested, survived the torpedoing of the HMT Dunera and reckons he "was meant to survive".

Harris' film is imbued with Gordon's optimistic view rather than the pessimistic idea that survival is a matter of random selection. Predicated on the notion of an identification between the figures on screen and the film's spectators, the recent run of US Holocaust films configure historical realities as survival fantasies, as if giving credence to the superstitious supposition that if we dream of our own deaths we die. Into the Arms of Strangers isn't a fictionalisation as such but it is an idealisation into which we can insert our emotions and our experiences.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that the film is most powerful when focusing on individual testimonies rather than the big historical picture. Despite Harris' claim that he experimented with ways to defamiliarise well-known archive footage, much of the library material here has been seen elsewhere, with the exception of an image of balloons imprinted with swastikas being sold in the street and the newsreel clip showing the interviewee Lore Segal getting off her boat. The film richly evokes the child's-eye view of Nazism and of arriving for the first time in England; Harris also gives us stylised reconstructions of the events many of the children experienced: the terror of hiding from the SS, packing before leaving, receiving letters from their parents. The montage of teddies, shoes, fine clothes and mementos being lovingly pressed into leather suitcases before leaving for Britain conveys with economy and beauty the parents' pain and fear at seeing their sons and daughters go and the children's own lack of historical perspective.

The interviews at the heart of the film are all shot in intense close-up. Towards the end Lore Segal, author of Other People's Children, a novel recounting her experience as a refugee, comments that the events of her life have proved a writer's "gift". This may seem naïve and lacking in recognition of the torment and death suffered by others, but Segal's optimistic observation encapsulates the tone of Harris' documentary. All the stories of the Kindertransport survivors are presented as if they are gifts, each interview a treasure to be treated with reverence. More than anything else, one comes away from Into the Arms of Strangers with a vivid image of these interviewees and the specific terms they use to evoke their experiences: one talks of shedding a "cloak of lead" as her train arrives in Holland, another of losing his capacity to speak German after reaching England. Put into words, such memories convey the essence of their experience as no archive footage or voiceover can.


Mark Jonathan Harris
Deborah Oppenheimer
Mark Jonathan Harris
Director of Photography
Don Lenzer
Kate Amend
Lee Holdridge
©Warner Bros.
Production Companies
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Sabine Films production
This film was produced in cooperation with the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum Washington, D.C.
Line Producer
Lou Fusaro
Associate Producers
Cayce Callaway
Alicia Dwyer
Production Controller
Michael Lewis
Production Co-ordinators
Jacqueline Véissid
London Crew:
Mona Benjamin
New York Crew:
Kevin Nelson
Location Manager
London Crew:
Christian McWilliams
Archival Researcher
Corrinne Collett
Additional Film Research
Karen Wyatt
Wolfgang Klaue
Angela Spindler-Brown
Margaret Kirby
LA Crew Additional Cinematography
Peter Smokler
Alicia Dwyer
Motion Photographer
Ken Rudolph
T & T Optical Effects Company
Music Score Performed by
Laura DeLuca
Charles Butler
Meade Crane
Lee Holdridge
Ira Hearshen
James Sale
Music Editor
Stan Jones
Music Score Recordist/Mixer
John Richards
"Alle Vögel sind schon da", "Hänschen klein ging allein", "Und in dem Schneegebirge", "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär", "Woll'n heimgehn" - Kinderchor des NDR; "Als unser Mops ein Möpschen war" - the Vienna Boys' Choir with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra; "Nevideli jste tu mé panenky", "Kycera Kycera" -Bambini di Praga; "Rule Britannia"
Sound Design
Gary Rydstrom
Sound Mixers
Peter Miller
Cologne Crew:
Caroline Goldie
Re-recording Mixer
Gary Rydstrom
Dialogue Editor
Teri E. Dorman
Sound Effects Editor
Shannon Mills
Additional Voices
Mirka Colman
Alexander Leeb
Mia Martin
Kevin Schwarzwald
Benjamin Singer
Giulia Tassius
Emilia von Spreti
Lavinia von Spreti
Petra Schwarzwald
Judi Dench
Warner Bros Distributors (UK)
10,549 feet
117 minutes 13 seconds
Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS
Colour by
FotoKem Film & Video
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011