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15 year old Sara, a Jewish girl living in the Netherlands during the German occupation slowly begins to realize the danger she and her family are in. When her parents are forced to move to a ghetto in Amsterdam, she decides to follow them rather than live with her brother and his girlfriend. She also keeps in touch with Greet, a girlfriend she met while in hospital, despite the fact that Greet's father is collaborating with the Germans. Written by
Kees van Oostrum, best known as a cinematographer, had wanted to film Marga Minco's semi autobiographical novel 'Het Bittere Kruid' ever since discovering it as part of his reading list at school. Indeed, I dare say most Dutch students have read or at least heard of the title during their education. Van Oostrum finally got the change in 1985, but managed to be sued by the author herself when he and writer Maurice Noel decided to add a subplot in which Sara, the lead character (and also Marga Minco's true first name) stays in touch with a girlfriend who's father is an NSB'er (Dutch collaborator with the Germans). Minco pleaded to have the film banned from theaters, or at the very least change the title. But when producer Rob Houwer explained this would mean a financial disaster, the judge ruled against the author. The filmmakers were however obliged to put a statement at the start of the film pronouncing Minco's rejection of the adaption.
At the start of the film, Sara (Ester Spitz) is being treated for tuberculosis in a sanatorium where she has become fast friends with Greet (Mirjam de Rooij). When Greet's father, a prominent sympathizer with the Nazi's notices Sara is a Jew, he makes sure she is sent home immediately. Despite having been occupied by the Germans for two years now, 15 year old Sara is only just beginning to realize how many restrictions are being put on her people. When her father (Gerard Thoolen) brings home a package of yellow stars to be sewn on the family member's coats, they all see it as a bit of a lark and joke around showing off their new accessories. While her brother and his girlfriend are making plans to escape to Palestina, Sara decides she would rather stay with her parents who have been forced into a Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam. She also begins visiting Greet, who is still very ill and who's house is usually filled with youthful collaborators thanks to her father.
During the eighties Dutch people often reasoned that Dutch films always either were about the war or about sex. 'Het Bittere Kruid' is definitely about the former, though there is a surprising lack of the latter. This is probably because the lead character is a minor and manages to remain quite innocent despite the circumstances. The film quite unusual in it's genre as it is completely shot from the perspective of a Jewish family and becomes a very personal and intimate story. There are no big set pieces or heroic actions. The film is also very short and ends rather abruptly, giving it some kind of TV movie feeling. In fact, the story is so thin, the plot synopsis on the back of the DVD cover tells the entire story. Still, Ester Spitz is very good in her film debut as Sara. It's a shame the actress didn't go on to greater fame.
7 out of 10
PS released as part of the Rob Houwer collection, the only extra on the DVD is the theatrical trailer, which as usual in Dutch cinema is very sloppily edited. It looks like they just took some footage and randomly cut it in no particular order. With Marga Minco wanting to stop people from seeing this at the cinema, she couldn't have done better if she had cut that trailer herself.
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