The first of two EUFF World War II films from France, each showing the cooperation, even the collaboration of the French under an intimidating German regime, Korkoro (also known as Freedom) centers on a group of Roma gypsies splintered and torn apart by the Holocaust. The destruction of property rights and life is a topic usually reserved for Jews in WWII films; here we learn of the similar oppression and slaughter of an entirely different group of people, one largely forgotten and totally unknown to many more.
The year is 1943. A large gypsy family sets course for the region of Burgundy for seasonal work in harvesting like they traditionally do each year. This year they will face greater hostilities. The regime has created laws regarding the nomadic nature of the gypsies -- wandering has become prohibited. The family no longer fits in with the new order. Fortunately for the group a local teacher and a veterinarian/mayor form a quiet opposition, a resistance to Nazi hostility, providing the group with a temporary home -- an unused and empty house where they can stay without a problem.
But problems seem to track the family down from all sides. The neighbors are already scared of a regime they cower from daily, and they don't want the gypsies as their neighbors. In a scene displaying the baser side of humanity they attempt to force the gypsies out. The mayor and the teacher arrive just before all hell breaks loose, and the mayor, Théodore, even threatens to take on the locals lest they back off. They do back off, but Théodore and the pretty teacher pay for their allegiance to the family -- they are soon arrested and beaten by Nazis who could care less whether they are pummeling a man or a woman.
Things are briefly OK for the family, and in a few scenes we get to see them better, meeting a culture that's typically lost on us. Music is a huge release for the family. Dancing and singing with spirited violins and assorted instruments mean much more to them than simple light entertainment. Their music is a meaning of connection, expression and brief escape. Director Gatlif allows quite a bit of room for us to peek in and see their dancing, their frolicking and delight in music which brings a healing ointment through hard times and sorrows.
The group also has some strange spiritual preoccupations. They seem obsessed with ghosts, constantly feeling the presence of spirits and seeing them around every corner. They even bless and anoint the house upon moving in to make sure the spirits go somewhere else. The ghosts are as real to them as any oppression from the Nazi forces; their ability to decipher unknown elements and true evil becomes confused when they're so transfixed.
The main gypsy we'll remember is Taloche, played with a physical presence by James Thiérrée (Charlie Chaplin's grandson), who is more scared of the ghosts than anyone, constantly slipping in cracks and crevices to avoid them. It is Taloche that originally discovers an orphan boy who has been following the group for a time. Taloche dives headfirst into a patch of weeds where the boy is hiding, originally locating him by his scent. They urge the child to leave, but he manages to stick around. He'll be with them through thick and thin.
With the arrest of the teacher and Théodore, the group decides it's time to leave the house and risk the outer elements once again. When they are predictably arrested and hauled off, in a harsh scene filled with faces full of tears, they urge their arrestors to leave the orphan boy behind. "He's not with us! He's not one of us!" they cry. Whether French or German in the arresting squad, no one believes the boy isn't a member of the family. He'll continue to cling to this group like their own new son, and whether they're set free or sent to concentration camps, his fate will accompany the family.
Korkoro is the family tragedy of maybe 12 or 14 people reflecting a time where hundreds of thousands of gypsy families like this were sent into exile and killed. The film tells us that an estimated quarter to a half million gypsies were brutally murdered at the hands of the Nazis out of the two million gypsies living in Europe at the time.
The topic is admirable, and honorable, and Gatlif should be applauded for his efforts. This is the first film I've seen from him, and I understand he has taken on the gypsy cause before, as well as maintaining a personal vision that is pure and unrelated to the worries of how much money films will make. This is certainly a film that will bring light to lost history.
But it's a film I wanted to like more than I actually did. The gypsies are often caricatured, especially Taloche, who comes off a bit like Torisho Mifune in Seven Samurai. He's a bit wild -- a little too much so at times -- making him an unpredictable character who is hard to understand, hard to identify with in a group that is already largely misunderstood.
I was happy to have seen Korkoro, glad to have seen into Gatlif's world which sheds light on an area left out of the textbooks of history. Sadly, the film could have been better built by delivering more realism in its cast so that we care about its cause.