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In 1939, Germany's Hamburg-America Line announced a voyage from Germany to Cuba. 937 people, the vast majority being Jews, signed up for the opportunity to escape Nazi Germany. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the visas they purchased were from a corrupt Cuban director of immigration, and they were invalid. Upon arrival in Havana, only 28 people were allowed to disembark, while the rest remained on board for weeks as they sailed to Florida, and eventually Canada, searching for safe haven. Sadly the ship returned to Antwerp after more than a month at sea. Forced back under Nazi rule as the low countries fell, it is estimated that approximately 250 of the refugees died in the extermination camps in occupied Poland. Written by
An Outstanding Cast in an Unforgettable True Story
"Voyage of the Damned" is the true story of a shipload of German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939 by seeking refuge in Cuba; the Cuban government waffles and won't let them in; sadly, neither will the United States; and the ship is forced to return to Europe.
Knowing that the voyage of the St. Louis actually happened deepens the impact of the film; while the movie itself is rather perfunctorily directed, the incredible all-star cast keeps the film very human and touching.
Lee Grant received the only Oscar nomination of the cast--her hair-cutting scene was obvious Oscar-bait if there ever was one--but she still conveys considerable pathos. Nevertheless, I was considerably more moved by the performances of Max von Sydow and Oskar Werner. Von Sydow portrays the captain of the St. Louis, attempting to keep the calm in an undeniably tense situation, growing ever more subtly aghast as the events unfold around him. Werner is his counterpoint among the passengers, an esteemed Jewish doctor and educator, seemingly serene in the face of such horror, but methodically determining what to do. Faye Dunaway plays Werner's embittered wife and her commanding charisma and beauty are at full wattage. Malcolm McDowell is rather endearingly miscast as a ship's steward who has a romance with Grant's daughter. Katharine Ross turns up briefly and gives one of the best performances of her career.
"Voyage of the Damned" may not be brilliant cinema, but it is an unforgettable story filled with an amazing cast and I highly recommend it.
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