Dare to Hope, But Never Trust a Nazi: ‘Voyage of the Damned’

I recently reviewed for PopMatters a classic French Film Noir called The Damned (1947), about a group of Nazi war criminals escaping liberated France on a long voyage to South America. Almost 30 years later, another film told almost the complete inversion of this, with a group of Jews being sent by the Nazis to their freedom in the United States (by way of Cuba) as part of a 1939 propaganda stunt.

The film is called Voyage of the Damned (1976) and it sports an impressive all-star cast as well as the direction of Stuart Rosenberg, known for such remarkably diverse films as Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) and Let’s Get Harry (1986) (on which his directing credit was removed in favor of the sad pseudonym, “Alan Smithee”).

Voyage of the Damned is unique among period pieces of this kind in that a very strong line is drawn between “Nazi” and “German”. Sure, many World War II films feature the token sympathetic Nazi who helps a Jewish escapee or an iconic savior like Oskar Schindler, but Voyage of the Damned allows for a much greater amount of grey areas in its characters, without the obvious black-and-white morality that many films of this kind demonstrate (and, considering the subject matter, are wise to do so).

Accordingly we meet Captain Schroeder (Max von Sydow in a typically excellent performance), skipper of the MS St. Louis who deplores the Nazi party and refuses to allow the party’s propaganda representative on his boat. On the flip side is Egon Kreisler, a Jewish physician who takes his Hippocratic Oath so seriously that he counted Nazi officers among his patients before being selected for the title voyage. This is appalling to Sam Wanamaker’s Carl Rosen, who sees this as nothing short of genetic treason.

We also meet young German (and, indeed, “Arian”) men like Max Gunter (Malcolm McDowell), who are more interested in love and romance than politics or separation of races, even if, in their present situation, they can’t fully grasp what these refugees have been through. Max stands in direct contrast to Helmut Griem’s Otto Schiendick, an equally Arian young German who is so similar to Max, one might get them confused, even though Max is a legitimate ship’s mate while Otto was sent by the Nazi party to carry out any of the more horrific orders they may have planned.

This is, of course, the core of the film, as anyone who knows the true story or the book written by by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts can tell you (which is, for you spoiler-hounds, much less than the movie’s trailer will tell you or even the title might imply). Even as Rosenberg and screenwriters David Butler and Steve Shagan allow grey areas and great diversity in both their German and Jewish characters, there is no sugarcoating or humanizing of the Nazis. Voyage of the Damned is far from a “war movie”, but the cold and ominous Nazi threat looms over virtually every moment in the film to the point that they sympathetic Germans and the defiant Jews begin to blur together into one collective of victims, especially when the plot we thought we knew begins to fall apart.

Voyage of the Damned is also not afraid to portray outrage from the characters concerning the horrors of this era. A young Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as the once intimidated former prisoner Joseph Manasse whose fear turns to anger. Pryce’s supporting role is so commonly silent and passive that his fury becomes a well-acted shock point in the film. There is always an air of detachment to his character as if any chance at life is too good to be true, but when he sees dreams turn to nightmares again, he is a completely different (yet seamlessly presented) character.

Other standouts in the cast include Katharine Ross, as Mira Hauser, the daughter of two of the voyagers, and Lynne Frederick as Anna, whose (natural) biggest fear is the concentration camps. Orson Welles is also noteworthy as the Cuban national whose sympathies for the plight of the voyagers make his job getting them on solid ground no easier.

Max von Sydow as the Captain

However, the dynamic and chemistry between the brilliant actresses Faye Dunaway and Lee Grant steals the show and stops all action in the film for some of the best drama in the entire picture. Initially at odds, Dunaway and Grant’s characters share a certain understanding that brings them together, at least for the smallest (yet most poignant) film moments. The conflict seen on the face of von Sydow, the shift in the character of Pryce and the scenes between Frederick and McDowell are the only dramatic moments that are quite as impactful as Grant and Dunaway’s exchanges.

Otherwise, the film is paced such that it can often fall into the category of “slow”, and this is most assuredly not a film for audiences looking for an action and adventure yarn. There is no Indiana Jones to save the day and no pat Hollywood ending to revise history. Voyage of the Damned is unquestionably a serious drama and treats its subject matter with the dignity that it should. To this end, the all-star cast does a remarkable job of selling this fact-based story, as does the beautiful and expansive cinematography of Billy Williams.

Voyage of the Damned looks and sounds great on Blu-Ray and fans of the film will appreciate the transfer, which maintains the inner decks’ darkness as much as it drinks in the sunlight of Cuba. However, as extras go, Voyage of the Damned amounts to a damned shame. This important movie isn’t given a commentary or any documentaries or interviews with the surviving cast and crew. Instead, only a photo gallery and movie trailer are included. With such subject matter, one might hope for a more ambitious release, but perhaps the market isn’t demanding that release yet.

This is a beautiful and well-done (if very depressing and occasionally too-slow) film, well worth the royal treatment. Perhaps its next release will grant just that.

RATING 7 / 10
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