Review: ‘The Struma’

One of WWII's worst civilian casualty tolls resulted from the December 1941 sinking of the Struma -- a onetime English gentleman's yacht turned Romanian trade vessel, with 769 grossly overcrowded Jewish refugees headed for Palestine -- in neutral waters off the Turkish shore.

One of WWII’s worst civilian casualty tolls resulted from the December 1941 sinking of the Struma — a onetime English gentleman’s yacht turned Romanian trade vessel, with 769 grossly overcrowded Jewish refugees headed for Palestine — in neutral waters off the Turkish shore. Simcha Jacobovici’s engrossing documentary not only functions as a memorial to this little-remembered tragedy, but also as a latter-day adventure yarn — and an in-progress political intrigue suggesting various governments’ ongoing interest in keeping this “unsolved mystery” well-clouded. Pic is a natural fit for fest and educational tube slots.

With up-to-the-moment sonar technology and a diving team lead by Brit Greg Buxton (whose grandparents perished aboard), filmmaker sets out to locate the Struma’s remains in the Black Sea. But almost immediately their efforts are complicated by local seafarers’ price gouging offers of “help,” then Turkish authorities’ endless stalling with regard to already agreed-upon permits.

Out of nowhere, government-sponsored divers suddenly claim to have found the wreck. But this soon appears a mere ruse intended to discourage the foreigners. Meanwhile, relatives of the long-ago deceased (plus 79-year-old David Stoliar, the Struma’s sole survivor) orchestrate their own commemorative reunion nearby, flying in from myriad points around the globe.

Reduced to a skeleton crew, Jacobovici and company do not ultimately achieve all they’d hoped for, in terms of locating and securely identifying the Struma’s final resting place. But in some ways they’ve done far more: raised public awareness of a terrible back chapter in history; created something of a second, shaming international incident six decades later; and, not least, uncovered disturbing evidence suggesting the ship may have actually been sunk by an Allied torpedo.

Subterranean political maneuverings of the early war era made the Struma a hot potato that in various ways offended German, British, Turk and Soviet interests. Long buried documents from the Stalin regime emerge to implicate a Russian sub as attacker, with Turkish officials complicit in their fate-sealing abandonment of the unprotected, provisionless vessel at sea. No wonder even this humanitarian research odyssey gets stonewalled at every turn, 60 years after the original incident.

Occasional overripe narration aside, feature skillfully balances numerous historic and present day strands, resulting in a docu of unusual narrative excitement. Tech package is fine, allowing for some verite-rough elements.

The Struma

U.K.-Canada

Production

An Associated Producers production. Produced by Simcha Jacobovici, Felix Golubev. Executive producers, Jack Rabinovitch, Pauline Duffy, Jacobovici. Directed, written by Simcha Jacobovici.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Alan Wilson; editor, Barry Reynods; music, David Well; sound, Graham Robinson. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 11, 2001. Running time: 92 MIN.
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