Before and after the Holocaust: Saturday at the SF Jewish Film Fest

I caught two movies Saturday at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The first was set just before official anti-Semitism turned into genocide. The second one was set right after the war.

Voyage of the Damned

This big-budget overstuffed turkey from 1976 tells an important and largely true story, and one that’s exceptionally important today. Unfortunately, Voyage of the Damned doesn’t give the story justice.

In May, 1939, Nazi Germany allowed nearly 1,000 Jews to leave the Reich on an ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, and immigrate to Cuba (this was assuming they could pay). It was meant as propaganda, proving that no one wanted the Jews. Sure enough, Cuba did not accept them, and neither did the USA or Canada. The passengers were eventually allowed to disembark in Belgium. Many of them died in the Holocaust.

A powerful story, but the film is slow, dull, and at 155 minutes, at least a third too long. It has too many main characters, most of whom are flat and uninteresting, and all speaking the wrong accents.

To make things worse, almost everyone on screen is a movie star. It’s distracting when a new character pops up and its Malcolm McDowell or Orson Welles. Star cameos are fine for broad comedies, but they don’t belong in a tragedy.

In the ’70s, this sort of thing made a movie “old fashioned.”

The film has its moments, especially in Cuba, as politicians and good Sumerians fight over letting the passengers immigrate. Oddly, the film tells us nothing about why and how the USA rejected them.

I give the film a D+.

Voyage of the Damned recently received a digital restoration, and the DCP was superb. But it left me wondering: Couldn’t they have spent that money on a better movie?

This was the only SFJFF screening of Voyage of the Damned.

Bye Bye Germany

For obvious reasons, most surviving German Jews migrated to Israel or the USA after the war. But some 4,000 remained in Germany.

This humor-laced drama fails to explain why, but it offers a compelling story about one Jew who stayed there to revive his dead family’s linen business.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) survived the Holocaust because the camp commander liked his jokes. At a relocation camp after the war, he brings together a group of men to sell linen. Much of what they do is not entirely kosher. They lie and trick people into buying what they don’t need or could get cheaper.

But why not cheat the Germans who sent them to the camps?

Meanwhile, an American officer (who also happens to be a beautiful, German-Jewish young woman – and yes, that fits into the plot) thinks he was a collaborator in the war. His tall story about joking to survive, and a thwarted plan to kill Hitler, makes her all the more suspicious.

The story is entertaining, often funny, and occasionally terrifying. There’s one deeply sad moment.

I don’t understand why they’re calling it Bye Bye Germany. The original German title, Es war einmal in Deutschland, translates into English as Once Upon a Time in Germany – a much better title.

I give it a B.

Bye Bye Germany will screen three more times as the festival: