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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
Phenomenal and grossly under-rated film dealing with 937 Jewish people allowed to flee the terror of Nazi Germany in 1939 by going on the St. Louis which was bound for Havana.
The truth be told, the Nazis had no intention of allowing the boat to land successfully. Rather they were going to use this trip to show that no one wanted the Jews and therefore when they would destroy them, no one would care or have the right to care.
The picture has a terrific cast in this ill-fated adventure.
For a second time, Oskar Werner, so memorable as the Dr. Willie in "Ship of Fools," plays another doctor, but this time a Jewish one. Along with his wife,Faye Dunaway, they are passengers. Of course, it's hard to fathom Miss Dunaway as Jewish.
Sam Wanamaker and Lee Grant are a couple fleeing from persecution by the Gestapo. Grant's acting in a pivotal scene by cutting off her hair was Oscar made,and while she received the only acting nomination in the film, she lost to Beatrice Straight's "Network." It should also be noted that Straight's time on the screen was even more brief that Grant. Grant's brief performance was probably her best, even better than in "Shampoo," the film that gave her the supporting Oscar the year before.
While the boat is drifting along, we see the players in Cuba either desperately trying to help the unfortunate Jews or corrupt officials in the Cuban government who played along with the Nazis for their own selfish economic interests.
Wendy Hiller and Luther Adler have their moments as an elderly Jewish couple. It's also hard to conceive Hiller as Jewish until she rips her garment in the traditional way when a death occurs. Hard to envision a Jewish funeral at sea with the Nazi swastika swerving on the ship.
Ben Gazzara is brilliant as a Jewish operative desperately trying to free the passengers. He goes all over the world and uncovers nothing more than frustration. Only a last minute reprieve saved the passengers from returning to Germany. Many of those however wound up perishing in countries invaded by Germany during the war.
This brilliant film serves as a reminder to the moral decay of the 1930s and that nations did little to stop the Nazi menace from the killing of 6 million innocents.
It is amazing that this film does not rank up there with "Ship of Fools," or even "Schindler's List."
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