Feature Documentary Reviews

The Albanian Code (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Yael Katzir

Writer: Dan Katzir

Running time:  55mins

Kindness to strangers is perhaps the finest of human qualities. Unfortunately, it has been in short supply at Bihac on the Bosnian-Croatian border where thousands of strangers escaping war or poverty have been living in the open snow-bound countryside since the transit camp they had been sheltering in burned down on Christmas Eve. A few hundred kilometres further south and several generations in the past is the setting for Yael Katzir’s intriguing documentary, The Albanian Code, which looks at one of the most powerful but not widely known examples of kindness to strangers in modern times: the sheltering of Jewish refugees by the Albanian people during the Nazi occupation.

The film opens with dramatic drone footage of an Albanian mountain swathed in cloud. On a technical basis, the cinematography is competent but bland – pretty much standard travelogue footage but with somewhat unimaginative use of drone technology. However, the rugged beauty of the Korab mountains will always be pretty memorable no matter how you film them, and the editing is seamless – while the interviews highlight the human impact of historical events, the stills and archive footage give Katzir the opportunity to assemble a compelling historical narrative.

As plangent string music begins to swell, we see the lapidary title, “The Albanian’s home belongs to the guest and to God.” This is helpfully credited to “Albanian Legend”. We then cut to Tel Aviv sea front where Annie, an elderly Israeli, and Michal, her daughter, are walking. From their dialogue, we learn that Annie, as a child, had been helped to escape the Nazi genocide by an Albanian family and that Annie would like to return to Albania to thank them. Michal enthusiastically agrees to accompany her mother on the trip. We then cut to an explanatory map of Albania and a voice over by the filmmaker who states that she did not know anything about Albania but had agreed to document Annie’s journey. We are up and running. (Later on, shortly after the party’s arrival in Tirana, Annie and Michal are joined by Michal’s daughter, Lea, in a joyous and unexpected family reunion.)

What follows is an absorbing account of Annie’s wartime experiences and her trip to Albania juxtaposed with a presentation of the wider history of Albania up to the fall of the Communist regime. Katzir skilfully weaves together film of the three women as they journey through Albania in search of the people who had risked their lives to protect Annie and her family with news reel footage from World War II and from the post-war Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

We meet the son of the man who hid Annie’s family and the son of the man who smuggled the family across the Yugoslav border. We are shown the women’s visit to the national archives, a visit to a school where Annie makes a speech of gratitude to the Albanian people, and meetings that the women have with the relatives of key players in the Albanian wartime regime who were instrumental in protecting Jewish refugees.

The film ends with a meeting with Crown Prince Leka II, the pretender to the Albanian throne, where Annie presents Leka with a hamsa, an image of a hand symbolic of peace and friendship, to the Prince and to the Albanian people as “a gift from Jerusalem”.

Katzir presents a story where the initial Italian Fascist occupation is portrayed as relatively benign, but which was then succeeded, after the Italian surrender to the Allies, by a brutal Nazi occupation, where Jews and the surrendering Italian soldiers were hunted down. We are shown a tolerant Albanian regime which, although forced to acquiesce in the German occupation, nevertheless protected the Jewish refugees on its territory. Katzir combines this with an account of how, prior to the war, the Albanian monarchy had welcomed Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution and how Jewish émigré doctors had founded the first university medical school in Tirana.

The narrative gives us a picture of Albanian exceptionalism: here was the only regime in occupied Europe where not a single Jew was given up to the Nazis by the local authorities. The exceptionalism is extended to the Albanian people or as the voice-over somewhat quaintly has it: “the commoners and countrymen”. Through one of the interviewees, we learn about Besa: a folk tradition that promotes the importance of the protection of a guest in one’s house. Katzir, as narrator, tells us that this is “a sacred tradition” laid out in a book, the Kunan. We are shown a copy of the book as the narrator tells us, ominously, violation of the Besa is severely punished, though the form of punishment is unspecified. So here we have the origin of the film’s title: the Albanian Code.

A little discussed aspect to any documentary film is the quality of the narration – somewhat like a football match, one should not notice the referee. Largely, Katzir makes an engaging and not overly intrusive narrator. Editorially, however, she seems a lot more heavy-handed. The stress on besa as the ideological underpinning of the altruistic actions taken by some Albanian people during the Hitler War is only expressed by one interviewee – others refer to simple humanitarianism and it is not mentioned by Annie, Michal, and Lea. Yet, it is taken up by Katzir and becomes the leitmotif of the entire film. I found this strange; for me it brought into question how much of the film was driven by Katzir and the production team, and how its agenda and lessons it is keen to impart actually came from Annie and her family.

Katzir had noted at the start of the film that she would be documenting Annie’s journey. However, one gets the impression that the producers planned and organised the journey to help Annie, yes, but also to fulfil their own agenda. The viewer is forced to collude with the fiction that Annie is meeting people unexpectedly when it is obvious that the meetings have been scoped out by the producers. The interviews inevitably come across as stilted and banal.

The scene where Anna attends the school assembly with the children singing the Albanian national anthem seems plain weird and like a take from a political party advertisement. I found it a great pity that Annie and the family were given such a small amount of screen time to discuss their feelings. When they are, as in the scene where they visit the border and Annie describes her terror when her family were hiding from the Nazi border guards, the result is fine cinema. I will long remember Annie’s recollection of her mother’s words of comfort: “my love, my soul”.

I kept thinking, as another door effortlessly opened to Annie to meet a member of the Albanian elite or a bundle of documents were unveiled in the National Archive which just happened to have the file that referenced Anna’s family, that a more rewarding format would have been a road movie where the women would have had to negotiate their way round the quirks and bureaucracy of an unknown country. Or possibly, a film of how Katzir, who at the beginning of the film ‘knew nothing about Albania’, came to be able to negotiate access to so many players, past and present in the Albanian establishment.

I have deep concerns as to the arguably Orientalist approach that Katzir takes to this part of South-East Europe; in particular, her use of Besa as a catch-all explanation for the motivation of Annie’s protectors. We really are in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon territory. At some points, I expected Skanderbeg, the hero in the national struggle against the Ottomans, to stride into view, bandoliers across his chest. Once you make use of ancient and sacred codes of honour, you are not far away from the Noble Savage trope.

Katzir does not refer to less helpful aspects of the code such as honour killings and vendetta. I would assume that Katzir’s rational was to use the Code as a demonstration of Albanian exceptionalism to an Israeli audience. We are consistently reminded by the many shots of minarets that Albania is a majority Islamic country but one that helped Jewish refugees. OK, they might be Muslims, but it is the Code that makes these guys different.

As to the Code, the elephant in the room for this viewer was how Katzir thinks it functioned under Hoxha’s dictatorship – one clip of which shows cops with ferocious dogs on leads harassing a crowd, this had been slowed down to make the actions even more threatening and grotesque – and whether she believes it to be part of contemporary Albanian culture? What began to grate, the further I got into the film, was that it was so monolithic in its treatment of a whole national population. All Albanians are steadfast men and women of honour, who selflessly protected Jewish refugees. The further into the film I got, the more the nagging voice in my head insisted, “Come on now, there must have been some schmucks out there, Code or not!”

A strange aspect of the film is that Katzir’s historical narrative comes to an end in 1995, with the fall of the Stalinist regime. It seems to be stuck in the era of Fukuyama’s End of History. We learn nothing about Albanian irredentism in Macedonia and Kosovo. We are presented with Leka II as a representative of the Albanian people in a quasi-monarchical role rather than a bit player in the present political scene. I would have found it interesting for Katzir to have given us her take on current Israeli-Albanian relations and her thoughts on how the Albanian Code was intended to impact on them.

As mentioned, I have some deep reservations about the Albanian Code; its simplistic celebration of nationalism; the negation of a universal humanism in favour of an ancient and sacred prescription on how to behave; the othering of Albanians as living in a timeless past; the director’s apparent imposition of an agenda upon the protagonist’s story. Yet, I would still recommend that you try and see this movie – it will ultimately reward you with a glimpse of a little-known part of the Holocaust, and in spite of its flaws, it can still serve as a jumping-off-point to further learning of the history of a fascinating part of the world. And, at the end of the day, any examples of kindness to strangers are worthy of celebration, whatever the motivation. How we apply that kindness in our own times and to the people shivering in the cold outside of Bihac is a question for all of us to answer.

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