[8 May 2009]
Amongst maritime sagas, the unfortunate fate of R.M.S. Titanic has hijacked the imagination of seemingly the entire planet, partly, but not wholly, due to James Cameron’s freakishly successful 1997 cinematic adaptation of the tale. Numerous Titanic films – and books – precede that director’s ship-rendering epic, and everyone’s heard the comic line about the doomed steamer needing another iceberg, proving once again that only time separates tragedy from comedy.
The story’s morbid details – over 1,500 lost – and traces of irony ensure its survival as a potent cautionary tale, but perhaps an even sadder oceangoing tale is that of the M.S. St Louis. This ship departed Hitler’s Germany in 1939 with a full complement of Jewish refugees, only to return a mere two months before the rampage of Hitler’s war machine, whose tentacles reached mercilessly across national boundaries to ensnare as many victims as possible.
The shipboard lives of these passengers is depicted – with some poetic license - in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1976 docudrama Voyage of the Damned, itself based on the non-fiction bestseller by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. Recently released on homevid by Lions Gate, the film sports an “all-star” international cast, which caused me some trepidation, as I remember all too well countless trite TV movies from my wonder years, top heavy with famous names. The primary entertainment in watching them was to exclaim, “Oh, look, there’s so-and-so!”
It also brings to mind Irwin Allen’s ‘70s disaster spectaculars, films of varying quality, though often underrated – The Poseidon Adventure is a sharp, tense thriller – and always with a generous helping of recognizable faces. On another riff, the title does sound remarkably like a ‘60s-era Italian horror flick, a creep-fest from the mind of Argento or Bava.
Voyage of the Damned isn’t shlock by any measure, but instead an affecting, if flawed, middlebrow drama about a seldom-discussed Depression-era tragedy. In the final months before World War II, the transatlantic liner M.S. St Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, loaded with Jews – as a swastika-emblazoned flag billows at the stern—seeking escape from the mushrooming hostility of the Third Reich. Their destination was Havana, Cuba; at that time, the largest Caribbean island was a politically murky banana republic.
The trip is perceived by global leaders as a “humanitarian” voyage, allowing an unwanted populace to establish new lives in a new land. And “perception” is precisely what the German government is counting on, for there is no official agreement with the president of Cuba to permit these folks asylum.
Steve Shagan and David Butler’s script immediately establishes the economic dichotomy between the passengers. Most passenger-carrying vessels of the prewar era divided people – a la Titanic – into distinct classes; first class for the upper crust, with the less refined divisions beneath that. The ever-elegant Faye Dunaway plays Denise Kreisler, a haughty doctor’s wife, whose husband Egon(Oskar Werner) has been stripped of his position, which involved treating Nazi officials, and the haunted Lili Rosen(Lee Grant) becomes her friend, despite her and husband Carl’s(Sam Wanamaker) disgust for Egon’s occupational capitulation to the enemy.
Dunaway, as always, projects earthy sensuality and Coconut Grove glamour simultaneously, and nobody dishes out righteous fury like Grant, perhaps channeling real-life rage at being blacklisted from features for over a decade, to unleash on any onscreen tormentor.
The pendulum swings the other way for Aaron(Paul Koslo) and Joseph( Jonathan Pryce – in his debut) – shaven-headed refugees from a brutal concentration camp, fear in their eyes, and little more than skin on their bones. In one scene, they quiver nervously when a food server asks about their menu choice, mumbling that they “don’t wish to make any trouble”. Clearly, they’re unaccustomed to such pleasantries, and happy to eat any meal in peace. Also on board are long-married couple the Hausers(Maria Schell, Nehemiah Persoff), anxious to join their lovely daughter, Mira(Katharine Ross), who will ultimately prove both a disappointment and savior.
Presiding over this uncomfortable situation is Captain Schroeder, portrayed by Max Von Sydow in a trademark force of nature performance, liberal in his attitudes towards Jews, and a stern taskmaster about insuring respectful treatment for the refugees. His volcanic authority is subtly undermined by the machinations of a cabal of anti-Semitic crewmen, led by an archetypally blond, scheming malcontent, Otto (the late Helmut Griem of Cabaret fame), who is openly contemptuous of having to serve the Fatherland’s most detested minority. Indeed, the simplistic German characterizations will surprise no one, as Schroeder and his assistant Max(Malcolm McDowell) are un-conflicted humanists who feel compassion, and later, in Max’s case, even love, for the people aboard.
Among the seemingly endless parade of established names are Orson Welles, as a power-wielding Cuban (!) sugar baron, keen on helping an anxious Jewish businessman already on the island retrieve his young daughters from the St. Louis, but too mired in aristocratic decadence to be troubled by the crisis. Jose Ferrer plays a cynical military general, and Ben Gazzara as a crusading Jewish-American agent, wasting his anger on indifferent, self-serving bureaucrats who couldn’t give a damn.
Voyage of the Damned is tastefully emotional Oscar-bait – with three nominations under its belt – and at two-and-a-half hours plus, could benefit from carefully selected trimming, starting with a few sections of Lalo Schifrin’s occasionally walloping score. The DVD “package” contains no extras, and, inexplicably, a full-screen presentation of the film! Can you imagine 1997’s Titanic only available in pan-and-scan? Cameron would raise holy hell! He might even choose to re-iterate his infamous “King of the World” Oscar night proclamation.
It’s a shame, however, that director Rosenberg devoted less attention to vocal authenticity, as the accents spoken in the film zigzag more than a star running back. Some non-German members of the cast attempt a legitimate Teutonic brogue, while others barely try, and still more(McDowell, Ross, Dunaway) simply don’t bother. Given the level of talent involved, this seems lazy, at best, and implies a certain timidity on the part of the producers, as if they decided that filmgoers were unwilling to see their favorite thespians step outside their established personas. And it’s inconceivable today that so many non-Latinos could be cast as Cuban nationals.
Still, Voyage of the Damned plumbs depths of pathos that Cameron’s blockbuster can barely dream of, and, although some of its details are disputed by historians, it does illuminate a shameful episode from the not-too-distant past, a chapter that even the beloved FDR played an unflattering role in. Political writer Andrew Bacevich recently argued that Americans must shed their illusions when looking back at their history, in order to de-mythologize the past. Would that it were so easy, in an America increasingly infatuated with an airbrushed nostalgia.