The fear of the unknown is often greater than facing the worst crisis that one can come across in one's lifetime, and often the worry is over nothing, but sometimes, those fears come true. For the displaced German Jews from Hamburg boarding a cruise ship for Cuba in 1939, their lives will never be the same after they leave their homeland. They aren't sure if they will be welcome, but anything's better than facing Hitler's Germany, an evil reminder of humanity at its worst. This all-star cast mixes together many famous actors of the stage and screen, many of them Oscar nominees or winners. That year's best actress, Faye Dunaway, was at the top of her career when she starred in this poignant film, and it's obvious that many of the actors surrounding her took this job, as she did, because of the important subject matter, something that is being dealt with around the world over 40 years later.
As an upper-class German Jew, Dunaway is married to doctor Oskar Werner who has stirred the wrath of his own people by treating Nazi's, and as he tells the embittered Sam Wanamaker, he's taken a Hippocratic oath to treat those who come to him regardless of their politics. Two young men (Paul Koslo and Jonathan Pryce) are released from a concentration camp and ordered to leave Germany and never return on threat of immediate execution. Even before they can get to their ship, they are viciously beaten up by young members of the Nazi party who attack them for no reason and leave them bleeding on the street. The visible scars are still noticeable when they leave their homeland hopefully for freedom and a new life.
Wanamaker is married to the devoted Lee Grant who is scared that her husband is falling apart in front of her and tries to keep their daughter (Lynne Frederick) from seeing this happen. An elderly woman (Wendy Hiller) looks over her dying husband with concern, while Nehemiah Persoff and Maria Schell strive to get to Cuba to be reunited with their daughter (Katherine Ross) who is pretending to be Christian and works as a high-class prostitute to stay alive. Sweet Julie Harris escorts two young children hoping to be reunited with their doctor father (Victor Spinetti) desperately trying to make sure they will be able to be reunited any way he can. Captain Max Von Sydow, a German Christian who has refused to join the Nazi party, must deal with Nazi's amongst the crew, especially the subtly nasty Helmut Griem who will not hesitate to kill a crew member who threatens to disrupt his plans.
As this ship reaches Cuba, it becomes very apparent that political intrigue will keep them from being able to disembark. The star power continues here with Jose Ferrer, Orson Welles and James Mason all involved in different sides of the issue, and it becomes very apparent that the Antisemitism doesn't end with the Nazi's. Perhaps there are way too many stars, and some of them (most notably Harris whom I longed to see more of) had little to do. But the chance to see powerhouse actors like Harris, Dunaway, Grant, Wanamaker and Von Sydow all working together will keep you intrigued for the 2 1/2 hours of this film's length. Key scenes between Dunaway and Grant as the situation grows dire and tragedy threatens to consume them will have your hands wringing or gripped in anger and fear as well.
As these diverse characters face the fears of returning to Hamburg for immediate transfer to a concentration camp, one thing becomes very apparent about them. They are all strong in different ways, family devoted and compassionate about each other. As one of the characters says, they've had to learn to have courage because of all the displacements over the centuries, and even with all that, there is something about these people that makes you want to see them saved. For whatever reason Jews had become the most unjustifiably hated culture in the world, this shows that the stereotypes, the envy, the inherent disgust towards them is unwarranted. Even when the Nazi's and their supporters are being cultured and polite, there is an underlying evil even in a simple statement of them being able to walk on water, a slam towards the belief that as a nation, they were responsible for murdering Jesus nearly two millenniums before. While this didn't have me shaking in horror and anger as "Schindler's List" and other Nazi themed movies, it did leave me touched, and reminded me that freedom for everybody is precious and we should never allow it to be taken away from us, no matter what the cost may be.
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