a big fan of Holocaust movies. Many are poorly constructed
and never delve deeply beneath their characters,
simply because it's not necessary when dealing with
such a weighty subject. Most audiences are ready
to soak up any Holocaust-related film and declare
it a necessary "must see" to once again witness
"man's inhumanity to man" and remind us of an event
that must "never be forgotten." It almost seems
that any filmmaker desiring a positive response
and award considerations can turn to the Holocaust
and churn out such a project—more worthy than typical
Hollywood summer junk, but still a well-established
That's why a Holocaust-related
film needs a different twist to work effectively,
and that's what makes Markus Imhoof's Boot ist voll,
Das (The Boat is Full) so worthwhile. Some natural
comparisons to The Diary of Anne Frank are inevitable,
but this story doesn't go for tear jerks and romanticism;
it seeks to expose history. Winner of five 1981
Berlin Film Festival awards and Oscar-nominated
for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982, Imhoof's
film received very little play in U.S. theaters
at the time and has been relegated to dust-covered
video shelves over the years. It's not the kind
of "feel good" Holocaust story that mainstream viewers
Based on Alfred A. Haesler's
The Lifeboat is Full, Imhoof's film explores Swiss
complicity during World War II. At that time jurisdiction
over naturalization was transferred to the police
reluctance and thousands of Jewish applicants for
naturalization were denied, even if they had been
born and raised in Switzerland. Despite official
neutrality, Switzerland provides very limited service
for refugees; otherwise, they could become overrun.
Thus, they find themselves in a "Twilight Zone"
of sorts—a difficult balancing act to avoid pissing
off German Nazis while retaining basic humanity.
Swiss villagers find they must often perform double
duty, and report illegal aliens for deportation
back to Germany and certain death. Of course, the
Swiss also had their fair share of racists and xenophobes,
who had no qualms against turning Jews in to Nazi
Imhoof's minimalist film
begins starkly, as if it's a theatrical set piece
with a single worker building a wall. Soon we see
a group of men walling up a railroad tunnel and
making an anti-Semitic joke. It's during World War
II, but the workers aren't Nazis—they are Swiss.
Among the ways that Switzerland assisted the Nazi
regime was closing potential escape routes and guarding
A small band of Jewish refugees
sneak across the German border through cover of
darkness and beautifully framed train engine smoke,
as Nazis capture less fortunate comrades—asking
one middle-aged woman if she prefers to be thrust
into the engine furnace face first or feet first.
Now in Switzerland, the six refugees hide out in
a barn and persuade the proprietress (Renate Steiger)
of an inn to feed them breakfast when they are discovered.
She soon empathizes with their plight and agrees
to put them up in the inn. She also impulsively
decides to ignore the meat rationing laws and serves
up generous helpings of ham to her Jewish guests.
While they are virtually starving, they are still
taken aback by the thought of eating pork (all deftly
handled in an understated manner).
One of the refugees, Judith
Kruger (Tina Engel), desperately wants to see her
husband, who has been imprisoned for two years.
She makes contact with Dr. Bartschi (Ernst Stiefel)
and learns that their best chances for remaining
in Switzerland rest with them posing as a family.
Refugee families with children under 6 are allowed
to remain, as are deserting Nazi soldiers. There
is a young boy in the motley group, but their biggest
challenge will prove difficult. While the other
five speak fluent German, the boy speaks only French.
Can they convince the child to remain mute 100%
of the time?
Other conflicts remain.
The elderly man can suitably pass as a grandfather,
but he insists on flaunting his Jewishness by continually
wearing his yamika. Even more challenging is Judith's
choice for a faux husband. She's obviously much
more comfortable with her younger brother, but no
one would believe that she was married to the young
teen. More suitable age-wise would be the Nazi deserter,
but Judith can't stand him. To demonstrate the unnaturalness
of this "family," they pose uncomfortably for a
picture. As difficult as it is to capture a single
moment with a semblance of family "chemistry," imagine
what lies ahead.
This provides suspense aplenty
throughout the 101 minute running time. Told simply,
the narrative relentlessly plows through unfamiliar
turf as far as Holocaust movies are concerned. Abandoning
the usual sentimentality, Imhoof captures a little
known facet of these unfathomable times. And that's
what makes this an especially effective Holocaust
film. The Boat is Full unsympathetically exposes
this darker side of Swiss history, yet also steadfastly
refuses to affix blame—making this overlooked film
one of the more credible accounts of the Holocaust.
Give credit to Home Vision Entertainment for bringing
this film back to life through a new DVD release;
it should gather less dust this time around.