Based on the Primo Levi novel and set during the last years of World War II, a group of partisans caught behind the German lines, are forced to fight their way from Belarus to Italy, showing how humanity can survive, if not flourish, even when faced with the death of civilisation.

Where the woods are thick, and the roads are full of mud, or dust, or snow, according the season, Mendel meets Leonid, a Soviet paratrooper, also a Jew. Together they go in search the village of armed Jews in the marshes of Novoselki. The Germans attack the village and only Mendel, Leonid and four others survive – Line, Sissl, Pavel and Dov.

The Novoselki survivors head west, through forests and marshes, snow and rain, in search of Gedaleh, a legendary Jewish partisan leader, poet and fiddler. Line, beautiful and tough, takes Leonid as a lover not realising that Mendel is also in love with her. Eventually the group are taken in by a band of Russian partisans based in the Turov forest where they are given menial tasks and treated as pariahs because they are Jews. Here, Mendel and Sissl become lovers.

Gedaleh arrives at Turov with his band of Jewish fighters, seasoned veterans of the ghettos, killers of Nazis. With no homes to return to, only the west beckons. The six survivors of Novoselki join Gedaleh’s group and march into Poland, evading the Germans, hijacking a train and using it to blow up a German garrison stationed in the Polish town of Sarny.

One night in an abandoned windmill Mendel makes love to Line. Leonid, betrayed and further fragmented, abandons the group and heads off on his own. Two days later the Gedalists rescue him from a group of Polish resistance fighters and continue their journey, but things can never be the same for Mendel, Sissl, Leonid and Line. The strained feelings between them upsets the balance of the group.

Against Mendel’s wishes Gedaleh includes Leonid in an attack against a German garrison guarding a Jewish concentration camp. Leonid sacrifices himself in the attack and is killed, further compounding Mendel’s feelings of guilt.

Deep into Polish territory the Gedalists are overrun by the front and interned by the Russians along with hundreds of recently released Jewish concentration camp survivors pending repatriation. The Russian commander, Captain Smirnov, is fascinated by the Gedalists. It seems he is a Jew that managed to change his name.

White Rokele falls pregnant. They improvised a Hupa. The Gedalists and some Poles who be invited, celebrate the wedding, with little food but much merriment. Four months later the war ends and Smirnov disappears along with the Russian guards, leaving money and weapons for the Gedalists to continue their journey – to Palestine and their dream of starting a new life.

The Gedalists march across the Polish border and into Germany they enter to a German village, which seems as a ghetto,they came to shop for food; but anti-Semitic feeling is still rife and Black Rokhele is randomly shot by an unknown German civilian. Piotr, grief-stricken, carries the girls body back to their camp. Gedaleh gathers his fighters to take revenge but Mendel will not be drawn into it – for him, the killing has to end.

The Gedalists continue their journey west, through cities of rubble, along highways laden with refugees. White Rokhele is eight months pregnant, the group enter American-occupied Germany. Mendel steals an army truck and the Gedalists escape, driving the back roads to Munich where they bribe a railway man to secure passage in a freight car attached to a train headed for Italy.

White Rokhele is in labour as the train approaches the Alps. Gedaleh takes out his violin and begins to play the song ‘If not now, when?’, the Gedalists singing. A dancing, happy rhythm that invites you to follow it. The rhythm of the violin climbs, more and more rapidly, becoming wild ,orgiastic. All of sudden, a sharp click is heard, and the violin falls silent. The damage is beyond repair. Gedaleh holds his arm out of the door, open his fingers, and the violin falls on the gravel with a funeral sound. The train crests the Alps, now heading downhill towards a green and fertile land.


Cinema Soleil