Monday, January 11, 2010

NYJFF ’10: Saviors in the Night

One of the most pernicious lies of the Nazi propaganda machine blamed the alleged lack of patriotism among Jews for Germany’s defeat in WWI. In reality, scores of Jewish Germans served the Kaiser with honor and distinction, including Menne Spiegel, who was awarded the Iron Cross for his courage under fire. The simple, God-fearing farmers of Westphalia knew better. Though many were indeed members in good-standing of the National Socialist party, they sheltered Spiegel, his wife Marga, and daughter Karin without hesitation. Those tense two years in Westphalia are chronicled in Ludi Boeken’s Saviors in the Night (trailer here), which opens the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival this Wednesday.

Blond and beautiful, Marga Spiegel looks Aryan, which allows her and Karin to pass themselves off as simple evacuees, finding refuge at the farm of Spiegel’s old Army comrade Heinrich Aschoff after a recent round of Allied bombing. Unfortunately though, not only is Menne Spiegel recognizable to many Westphalians from his horse trading business, he also almost looks like a Nazi caricature, forcing his protector, the taciturn Pentrop, to keep him hidden away in the loft of his workshop, safely out of sight.

Based on Marga Spiegel’s memoir, Savior largely follows a pattern somewhat familiar from other rescuer films, but it still has some fresh perspectives to offer. One might assume Marga and Karin would find comfort with their supposed fellow evacuees, but they can never let their guard down around the Aschoff’s other virulently anti-Semitic guests. Marga also has to contend with a certain degree of class envy from Aschoff’s wife Maria. Yet the film makes it quite clear the Aschoffs’ mercy and courage were deeply rooted in their Catholicism. “We are closer to the Bishop of Münster than to Hitler,” he admonishes his daughter Anni, an ardent Hitler Youth.

Yes, young Anni has an inevitable change of heart, as she comes to understand the nature of the National Socialist regime. Of course, there are also many sudden inspections and near exposures, but they are well executed by Boeken. He keeps the atmosphere tense, but remains faithful to the understated nature of Westphalia’s pious farmers. Much like Schindler’s List, the actors are joined by the actual Marga Spiegel and Anni Aschoff for the final scene, but in Savior the mood is more celebratory rather than elegiac, again giving established conventions a fractionally different twist.

Savior’s cast is uniformly strong, particularly the vaguely Joseph Cotton looking Martin Horn, who portrays Aschoff with fitting unpretentious directness. Likewise, Veronica Ferres certainly captures Marga Spiegel’s fear and desperation, but with considerable depth and quiet intensity, preventing her from becoming a mere stock figure of noble suffering and endurance. Teenaged Lia Hoensbroech also handles Anni Aschoff’s transformation convincingly, nicely playing off Ferres in their critical scenes together.

While Savior essentially takes the audience where it expects to go, it does so effectively. Its strong leads engage the audience emotionally, while Boeken’s sure hand keeps the on-screen action tightly focused. More than just an exercise in good intentions, Savior is a strong film, well-chosen to kick-off this year’s NYJFF. It screens Wednesday (1/13) at the Walter Reade, with Marga Spiegel scheduled to attend.