Each year, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival features a plethora of works centred on the Holocaust. A Radiant Girl is among the most recent. It’s important, in fictionalized stories such as this one, that the Jewish voice and experience remain the focus. A Radiant Girl tells an important story of French Jewish life in the immediate lead up to the Holocaust. Though fictional, there are many important lessons we can apply to how we pass on stories about the Holocaust.
A Radiant Girl tells the story of Irène (Rebecca Marder), a young French Jewish girl who aspires to be an actress. Through her eyes, viewers see the world crumbing as naziism grows ever stronger. Through it all, she maintains her focus solely on her own life. Those around her have various levels of awareness of the true nature of the coming storm. It’s sobering, seeing people in the midst of the end of the world, who are either unable or unwilling to move from where they stand.
A Radiant Girl offers a timely political message to viewers. In the present day, we are faced with far-right ideology becoming increasingly mainstream. Many of the characters echo some variation of the sentiment “It’s not that bad”, or, “It could be worse”. It’s a commentary on the inability of human beings to acknowledge the danger, even when it’s staring us right in the face. This comes at such a massively high cost, however, and this movie is a sobering reminder of the fact that we ignore these threats at our peril.
So many Holocaust films focus on the fire and destruction itself. Unfortunately, as time has passed, a narrative has emerged asking why so many European Jews didn’t leave in the early days of the nazis’ ravaging of Europe. A Radiant Girl is a strong rebuke to this narrative. There are just so many answers to this question. There’s a paralysis that pervades every part of this movie, that successfully recreates the claustrophobia of the Jewish community in Europe in the early days of the war. Ultimately, those who ask why more people didn’t leave are asking the wrong questions. How could the entire world stand by and allow the atrocities to occur, when they were never secrets?
The jarring ending serves the story so perfectly. There was really no other way to conclude this story, to be honest. It’s a jolt that, while A Radiant Girl may be a work of fiction, millions of Jews across Europe faced this fate. It’s a reminder of how violently millions of lives came to an end in an instant. It’s heartbreaking. If we let it, it can also be a call to action.
A Radiant Girl was a shining star of the 2022 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Held together with heartwarming performances, portraying children who are just trying to live out their innocence, there’s a timelessness to it though it is grounded firmly in history. If historical fictional stories are going to be told about the Holocaust, this is a solid example of how to do it right. Hopefully, as we approach a time when we no longer have access to first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, the refrain of Never Again can be made a reality in our own time.
A Radiant Girl had its Ontario Premiere at the 2022 Toronto Jewish Film Festival.