Rami Kodeih’s “Alina” explores the efforts of a gang of women that smuggle children out of a Warsaw ghetto during World War II that was inspired by real events.
“They’re on the first floor,” warns Alina, the titular character played by Alia Shawkat in Rami Kodeih’s latest short film. Nazi officers are quickly moving up the residential building and rounding up Jewish children. The small apartment springs into action as four women burn documents, conceal evidence under the floorboards and administer their last sedative to a three-month-old baby.
Inspired by real events, “Alina” follows a gang of women that rush to smuggle a baby out of the Warsaw ghetto following a mandate that Jewish children be sent to extermination camps.
The urgency of the mission is made evident as Nazi soldiers loom closer and the sounds of gunshots and yelling grow louder.Alina’s network of accomplices include her mother, brother and three friends Nelly, Rachela and Sonia. Together, they forge a plan to get Nelly’s three-month-old daughter Zofia out of the ghetto.
The 25-minute short seems to play out in real time, which makes every last-second escape and dodged bullet feel even more visceral. Kodeih uses handheld shots in the opening sequence to fully immerse viewers in the action. The audience is made to feel like helpless bystanders to the desperate chaos of the characters.
Using a makeshift rope, Alina scales down the building with Zofia and quietly acknowledges their slim chances of survival, should the rope break or they be caught.
As a seasoned comedic actress known for her performances in “Arrested Development” and “Search Party,” Shawkat navigates the dramatic role of Alina with ease. She adds depth through the subtle changes in her expressions that signal her character’s thoughts and apprehensions.
With the characters’ words so heavily surveilled, the story relies on visual cues and coded dialogue to fill in the expositional blanks.
A space under the floorboards shows evidence of past saved children and illegal missions. A scratch of paper tucked into Zofia’s clothing reveals that her father is dead. A phone call between Alina and her mother depicts the omnipresent Nazi control of Warsaw from the phone lines, to the airwaves, to the roads.
It is not until Alina and her mother face the unyielding Nazi Captain Drauz, played by Mark McCullough, in a final showdown that the camera is planted, cutting between tight shots of each character.
Shifting from frantic urgency to quiet discomfort, this scene shifts the pace of the film but maintains the tension.
“You can hide anything you want, but you can’t hide your eyes,” Drauz tells Alina.
The depth of Shawkat’s performance lies in her expressive face and eyes. Her movements are slow and deliberate, but her face subtly contorts with every obstacle.
Rami Kodeih on the Inspiration for “Alina”
Written and produced by Kodeih’s wife Nora Mariana Salim, the idea for the story spawned in 2016. Salim came across stories of women throughout World War II that helped children to escape to safety. “Alina” became a composite of the stories of ordinary women throughout the Nazi regime that saved countless lives.
Upon noticing a surge of fascism around the world, Kodeih looked to use both his own experiences living through war in Lebanon and the scores of women that smuggled children to safety in World War II to create an immersive experience of conflict.
The film translates not only the dangerous feats of getting children to safety but the tension felt while living through violent conflict.
“I’m a child of war, basically. I’m someone who lived through war as a human being. Nothing should be compared to what happened in World War II, of course, but at the same time, I am someone who was raised on candles without electricity,” says Kodeih.
With cinematographer Matt Plaxco, Kodeih created a dark atmosphere to underscore the uneasiness of life under Nazi occupation in which ongoing violence and abusive rulers withhold and disrupt resources like electricity.
“It was very much inspired by the sounds of war that I heard growing up. It was a matter of how to transfer that technically and how to build that during the edit,” Kodeih says of the editing process.
Kodeih found inspiration for his film in two inextricable themes of war: abuse of power and survival.
“If you look through history, thousands and thousands of years before, there’s always certain people who are in power and abuse that power. That’s just the rule of life and that’s how human beings are.”
Survival and Loss During War
Living through the trauma of war creates a new normal that is defined by an ultimate goal: survival.
“The human behavior between the characters comes from what I experienced as a child of war and how I grew up in an unstable, sometimes stable, but most of the time unstable type of place,” Kodeih says.
Nelly, played by Rebecca Robles, entrusts Alina to get Zofia out of the ghetto to keep her from the extermination camp. But when she gives up her daughter, there is no promise that they will ever reunite.
Nelly places her daughter in a box with a small scrap of paper with her name and age and drops her out of a window to Alina, who can hopefully smuggle Zofia to safety. Nelly permits herself one last look at her daughter as Alina watches with a solemn expression.
Moments later, Nazi officers shoot bullets in the bathroom that Nelly is crouched in, narrowly missing her. It’s not until the soldiers leave that Nelly takes a moment to reflect, react and grieve her loss.
It is through this kind of imagery that “Alina” triumphs in imparting the chilling reality of survival and loss in times of war.
“Alina” is not just another World War II film. It is a successful study of human nature through violent conflict and the cost of survival.