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In 1996 a panel was created called the Independent Commission of
Experts headed by historian Jean Francois Bergier to study
Switzerland's wartime past. The report of the Bergier Commission,
though acknowledging the many refugees Switzerland accepted during
1940-45, condemned its wartime practices of deporting Jewish refugees
(around 30,000) back to Germany, accusing Swiss officials of pursuing
an inhumane policy at odds with the country's tradition of offering
asylum to those facing persecution. A Swiss/Austrian/West German
co-production, Markus Imhoof's striking drama The Boat is Full
dramatizes this issue, challenging myths about Swiss wartime virtue and
Nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for Best Foreign Film, The Boat is Full is not widely known in the U.S. but it is one of the finest films dealing with the holocaust. In the film, a group of German Jewish refugees must pretend they are a family in order to be granted asylum in Switzerland (refugee families with children under 6 are allowed to remain in Switzerland) but are faced with the rigidity of small-minded bureaucrats who see it as their duty to uphold the letter of the law. As the film opens, a German train is halted because of a Swiss attempt to wall off the tunnel to close potential escape routes. Six people, four Jews, a French child, and a deserting German soldier jump off the train and seek refuge at a rural inn, run by a married couple Laurent and Franz Fluckiger (Renate Steiger and Mathias Gnadinger). It is only afterwards that they discover that the country maintains strict quotas and that they are in danger of being deported.
To survive, they pose as a family. Judith Kruger (Tina Engel), a young woman, pretends that she is the wife of Karl Schneider (Gerd David), a Nazi deserter, an elderly man from Vienna, Lazar Ostrowskij (Curt Bois) pretends to be her father, and a young boy (Simone Maruice), who can only speak French, pretends that he is a deaf mute. The scheme is threatened, however, when a hard-nosed constable comes to investigate and Judith's real husband escapes from a work camp and tries to find her. Though we do not know the protagonists on other than a surface level, The Boat is Full is still a powerful film that reminds us that rigidly supporting the letter of the law does not always mean adhering to its spirit, or understanding the personal consequences that may result.
I hated most of the characters in this movie. I hated the ending. I had trouble sleeping after I saw the film. A movie that affected me this much, must be brilliant. It is! In all its aspects. Simple storytelling at its best. A shame, and a sin, that it is all true. And you know it cuts right to the bone, after you become aware, as to how the movie was shunned in Switzerland, and how all but one print of the film managed to survive, after its initial release. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to the filmmakers and actors that made the Boat is Full, a reality. I have seen quite a few films, relating to the Holocast, and this is by far the the most horrific. As I said before, simple, yet effective.
The anxiety of an attack from Hitler-Germany was real in Switzerland
during WW II. Why should Hilter not integrate German-speaking
Switzerland into his "Reich" to which already belonged Germany and
Austria? After all, the "Grossdeutsches Reich" was based on the common
language spoken, so Northern Switzerland was considered once lost from
the "Grossreich" like Mussolini considered the Italian speaking parts
of Southern Switzerland as "terre irridente". Why Hitler did not
conquer Switzerland stays one of the big enigmas of history up to
The Swiss population that lived close to the German border - in "Das Boot ist voll" it is Siblingen, Canton of Scaffusia - realized much more of what is going on on the other side of the river Rhein. Everyday immigrants crossed the Swiss border illegally. However, what did "illegal" mean in regard of immigrant-laws that had become criminal themselves? That the population must have reacted confused when it was confronted actually with a group of immigrants like the six persons in the movie, is clear. The wish to help them hide and feed them went along with the fear to be detected and to go to prison. The boat was not full, of course, and the title of the movie is cynically meant, but Switzerland did not want to provoke Germany by giving their Jewish population asylum.
I think, films like "The Boat is Full" are necessary, but not because Switzerland had loaded more guilt upon herself than other states during WW II did. The opposite is true. But Switzerland had started to construct a very strange self-image of alleged neutrality and interwoven it with her history back to Wilhelm Tell which consists exclusively of fairy-tales. Middle-aged people like me still had to learn in school that a handful of Swiss soldiers defeated "the Habsburgian army" in "battles" whose names do not even occur in Austrian history and are not even to find in Swiss geographic maps.
When the von Trapp family make it over the border to Switzerland, their
ordeal is over and all is well (or so "Sound of Music" implies). Not so
with the six forlorn refugees of "The Boat is Full." Having reached
Switzerland after a perilous escape from Nazi Germany, their ordeal has
just begun. They end up in a small village where an innkeeper couple
take them in and try their best to provide food, clothing, shelter, and
protection from the authorities.
The movie examines the attitudes of the Swiss towards refugees who were escaping Germany and seeking safety in their country. It provides a good insight not only into the official policies regarding which refugees were allowed to stay and which were forced to be repatriated, but also the attitudes of the common people. Some were openly hateful, most were indifferent and callous, many genuinely compassionate and kind.
The overall arc of the story is less important with this movie than the individual scenes and episodes that take place. Each conveys a particular pathos and engraves itself in one's memory with indelible force. The acting is almost totally transparent: you feel these are real people going through real events. The refugees' blank, despondent expressions, the gradual transformation of the innkeeper husband from suspicion to tolerance to outright kindness, the harsh authoritarian attitudes of the policeman, these all contribute to the film's effect.
It's a stark film to watch: there is no score, the colors are heavily muted and drab, and there are few points of comfort or cheer. One is left with a profoundly ambivalent view of the Swiss and Switzerland, which apparently was known as the "lifeboat" of central Europe (hence the irony in the title). The film is basically examining where the line could/should have been drawn between compassion and the need to maintain Swiss neutrality and protect its own borders and feed its people.
This is a rather small movie, realistic, concentrating on its people. German
and Austrian refugees come to Switzerland, find shelter at a countryhouse
and experience that they are not really wanted there because the Swiss have
their own problems yet they are not in war. It's a dense movie, with
authentic actors and simple but convincing dialogues.
The fact that it ends up not in one big but in some smaller singular tragedies is not particularly stressed; the true story the movie is based upon is told plainly, without cinematic flamboyance and therefore the movie gains a somewhat disturbing, unpleasant touch. Actually, this is the first Swiss World War II movie I've seen and it was interesting to get to know their point of view too. I recommend this.
Slow moving film from Switzerland that takes place during WWII where six people seek refuge in a village inn, much to the discomfort of the couple who runs the place. The group attempts to pose as a family, but their plans are thwarted. Although there are wonderful performances from Engel and Bois, as two Jews, the story doesn't stay strong enough to last the almost two hours running time. Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 1981.
Good span of characters, the movie lacks another storyline other than the couple hiding the refugees (and a little more, too little). It's too long for the little story it holds, while it does hint the characters have some more in them. Well acted, touching and haunting, is does light a different angle about Switzerland's neutrality- still being unraveled today in the news.
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