“PERSONA NON GRATA” (“ Sugihara Chiune”)
“The Schindler of Japan”
Cellin Gluck’s World War II-era biopic “Persona Non Grata” introduces us to Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania who issued transit visas from July 18 to Aug. 28, 1940, that saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish lives. Sugihara in doing this defied instructions from his superiors and the foreign policy of the Japanese government which had allied itself with the Nazis. IThis film which tries to explain the mystery of Sugihara (who went by the name “Senpo”) is something of a history lesson. He was posted to Harbin, Manchuria, in 1924 and there he fell in love with a Russian woman, Irina (Agnieszka Grochowska). He became a pawn in a scheme of the Japanese military to wrest control of a strategic railroad owned by the Soviets and he saw the death of innocent victims and his Russian girl friend blamed him for these even though he protested against the scheme to his superiors, Sugihara was labeled persona non grata by the Soviet government.
Assigned to the consulate in Kaunas in 1939, Sugihara hires a Polish intelligence officer, Pesh (Borys Szyc) as his driver and together they gather intelligence on the Nazis and Soviets. The Japanese Foreign Ministry needs to know the true intentions of both following the signing of the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. In the course of their work Pesh becomes Sugihara’s friend and confidant.
Then the Soviets announce their occupation of independent Lithuania and the country’s Jews were in danger of being given over to Hitler. When refugees gather by the hundreds at the consulate gate to beg for visas, Sugihara’s kind-hearted wife, Yukiko (Koyuki), urges him to do the right thing. Sugihara, already opposed to what he sees as Japan’s suicidal foreign policy, doesn’t require much persuading.
The film brings us not just the story of Sepno but it explores the process by which an ordinary individual, faced with a terrible dilemma, can come to a heroic decision. Director Gluck takes issue with the comparison to Oskar Schindler in that Schindler rescued people close to him while Senpo rescued thousands of people he didn’t even know.
Karasawa Toshiaki gives a powerful performance as Sugihara Chiune with the support of an outstanding Polish cast. Gluck shot the film with a mostly Polish crew and almost entirely in Poland.