Boat is Full, The (1981)

Director: Markus Imhoof

Stars: Tina Engel, Renate Steiger

Release Company: Home Vision Entertainment

MPAA Rating: NR

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The Boat is Full


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I'm not 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 formula flick.

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 seek out.

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 authorities.

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 its borders.

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.

 


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