1943 was an awkward time to be a Danish jazz musician playing in a style inspired by Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club of France. Being Jewish was even more dangerous for Arne Itkin and his family. Denmark was an exception to the norm in occupied Europe, because of the high survival rate for Danish Jews and the extensive defiance among everyday Danes. Unfortunately, the October 6th tragedy in the seaside village of Gilleleje was the exception to the exception. That is exactly where the Itkins are headed in Nicolo Donato’s Across the Waters (trailer here) which screens during the 2018 New York Jewish Film Festival.
Initially, Itkin refused to believe there was any danger of French-style round-ups, because of the high degree of autonomy the protectorate government negotiated. He was wrong. As a result, his family was not as prepared as it should have been to seek passage to Sweden (where his well-to-do in-laws were already safely established). For a while, Itkin kept lugging his guitar, believing it would help serve their needs in Sweden, but it will not survive the close calls on the road to Gillejele.
Most of the Calvinistic Gilleleje villagers believe it is their Christian duty to aid all Jewish refugees, especially Niels Børge Lund Ferdinansen, the unofficial leader of the skippers and Donato’s grandfather. Unfortunately, his brother-in-law Kaj is an exploitative war-profiteer—and that’s when he is at his best.
Across depicts probably the ugliest incident in Danish history as a way of portraying the best of the Danish resistance. This is not a dumbed-down morality play. Both Jews and ostensibly Christian villagers alike make bad decisions and act disgracefully out of fear or panic. Yet, the fact remains, the overwhelming majority of the village refused to participate in injustice.
As Arne and Miriam Itkin, David Dencik and Danica Curcic hardly have time to catch their breath during the tense, on-the-run first half of the film, but they really lower the boom in the tragic Gillejele-set scenes. Jakob Cedergren also helps humanize Donato’s revered grandfather, while sacrificing none of his heroism. Nicolas Bro is boldly and fiercely contemptible as the irredeemable Kaj, while his real-life sister Laura Bro is quietly devastating as the profoundly sad and deeply disappointed Katrine Ferdinansen.
There have been many well-meaning, competently executed survivor stories previously dramatized on the big screen before, but in this case, music helps distinguish Across from the pack. There is a nice large ensemble Hot Club musical number that helps establish the Itkins’ passion for life, but Jesper Mechlenburg’s closing original song, “Safe and Sound” has a strikingly somber, somewhat Leonard Cohen-esque vibe that really sums up the essence of the film. Highly recommended for general audiences, Across the Waters screens this Thursday afternoon (1/18) and Saturday evening (1/20), at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYJFF.