Producer-turned-director John Daly’s twist on the “Schindler’s List”-type Holocaust genre, “The Aryan Couple” allows Jews to claim the heroic role in their own drama — even the titular duo turn out to be Jewish resistance fighters in disguise. But pic’s dubious brand of heroism, half-baked historical sense, simplistic dialogue, flat staging and barely formed characters make for sluggish sledding. Indeed, when action devolves into slo-mo toward pic’s climax, it adds insult to injury. After initial runs in New York and Los Angeles, “Aryan” is skedded for wide 2005 release but it is unlikely pic will pull in many large namesake auds.
Story concerns the negotiations between the Third Reich — repped by no lesser personages than Heinrich Himmler (Danny Webb) and Adolf Eichmann (Steven Mackintosh) — and a rich Jewish industrialist, Joseph Krauzenberg (Martin Landau, in yet another underdeveloped one-note role that fails to trump his unforgettable “Ed Wood” turn).
According to the terms of his deal with the Nazis (based vaguely on the real-life “Europa plan”), Krauzenberg will exchange all his worldly possessions for safe passage to Palestine for himself and his extended family. While Krauzenberg wearily compromises, his dignified wife, Rachel (Judy Parfitt), shoots off icy, sarcastic zingers.
Meanwhile, Krauzenberg’s devoted non-Jewish servants (insistently referred to either by their hissingly German name, Vassman, or as “Aryans”) are busy deciding whether to poison the visiting Nazi VIPs. When not plotting assassination, Danny (Kenny Doughty) and Ingrid (Caroline Carver) blandly bicycle across the verdant countryside, making friends with lonely checkpoint soldiers and reporting on the fate of Hungary’s Jews — which provides the excuse for a protracted cattle car deportation scene. Unfortunately, the scene lacks a vivid sense of violence and its abandoned child’s toy symbolism comes off as hokey.
Pic’s characters are unreadable and awkwardly distanced. The actors appear to have been handed personality traits on a strictly need-to-advance-the-plot basis that allows no color or intimacy, while Igor Khoroshev’s unrelenting score lays on the schmaltz. Only Webb’s prissily self-congratulatory Himmler resonates with vigor.
Pic was shot in Poland with the Zamoyski Palace and Museum at Kozlowka standing in for the Krauzenberg’s opulent art-filled Hungarian mansion. While lenser Sergei Kozlov seems comfortable with the castle’s glittering surfaces and grandiose proportions, the actors move gingerly through the rooms that they never manage to inhabit.
Used well, this strange sense of a space frozen in time might have given the pic a unique way to portray the unthinkable, particularly after film’s ghostly opening sequence shot in present-day, deserted Auschwitz. Instead, however, helmer Daly opts to formally pose his characters in front of untouched, pristine historical backdrops with all the finesse of a high school pageant.
At times, script’s disingenuous hindsight unintentionally posits a less than complimentary vision of Jewish valor. The Krauzenbergs’ heroism consists solely of their ability to buy freedom, and that only for their own family. They seem unconcerned that the European factories, banks and steel mills they are surrendering are slated to go directly into the German war effort.
Despite an unfortunate penchant for heavy-handed “surprises” and utterly familiar set pieces, the thriller escape scenes near the end have an emotional quality lacking in the rest of the film: The non-Aryan Aryan couple hold hands and run through smokepot-created fog and night-shrouded train stations, while the Nazis, in pursuit, conveniently shoot each other.