The Germans — well, most of ’em — are actually the good guys in WWII drama "Saviors in the Night."

The Germans — well, most of ’em — are actually the good guys in WWII drama “Saviors in the Night,” which tweaks the Jews-in-hiding subgenre by making the shelterers ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Westphalian peasants. Based on the memoir (first published in 1969) of the now 97-year-old Marga Spiegel, this third feature by Dutch helmer-producer Ludi Boeken benefits from his docu background in its realistic, no-frills style and refreshingly unsentimental treatment of the subject. However, modest production values, though a dramatic plus, will likely make this a smallscreen item outside home turf, where it goes out Oct. 6.

The film has the same verismo feel as Boeken’s journos-in-Lebanon drama, “Deadlines,” but without its conventional third act and cookie-cutter characters. The swiftly paced, almost throwaway narrative, tightly cut by Suzanne Fenn (“Deadlines”) and shot handheld by Dani Schneor in 16mm, avoids the stagy look of most WWII dramas; the slightly fuzzy, weakly colored look of the 35mm blowup adds a further semi-docu touch.

A brief prologue, set during WWI in 1918, sets up the background of German-Jewish peasant Siegmund “Menne” Spiegel (Armin Rohde), who won an Iron Cross for defending Deutschland on the Western Front. “Twenty-five years later, my homeland was trying to kill me,” he says in v.o., as the story jumps straight to 1943.

Escaping the final transports of Jews to the East, Menne one night bumps into his old friend, Heinrich Aschoff (Martin Horn), who unhesitatingly offers refuge for Menne’s wife, Marga (Veronica Ferres), and their young daughter, Karin (Luisa Mix), on his farm. Tall and blonde, Marga can easily pass as an Aryan German, and she and Karin adopt the surname Krone. Only Heinrich’s wife, Maria (Margarita Broich), is also in on the deception; their teen daughter, Anni (Lia Hoensbroech), who has a thing going with local Nazi Youth group leader Erich (Daniel Flieger), isn’t told.

With discreet use of atmospheric music and fine performances by the ensemble cast, the film builds a convincing atmosphere of Marga and Karin always on the verge of being found out as they try to blend in with the farm workers and evacuees housed at the farm. That Christmas, when Marga’s cover is almost blown, Heinrich and Maria decide to convince Anni that what they are doing is the right thing. Meanwhile, Menne, who’s been given shelter by another farmer (Veit Stuebner), daily runs the risk of being discovered by a suspicious Erich.

Considering it runs counter to accepted wisdom that all Germans were collaborators with the Nazi regime, the pic studiously avoids grandstanding, letting the characters and the story do the talking. The screenplay creates a real ensemble of which Marga and Menne are simply a part, rather than the leads.

In many respects, the movie is more about the Aschoff family — regular northwest German practical peasantry, grounded in the soil and basic values; Heinrich, like Menne, was decorated in WWI and his eldest son (Marlon Kittel) is now on the Eastern Front, from which they hardly expect him to return.

Horn is aces as the quiet paterfamilias, and Broich likewise as his tough and practical wife. Onetime pin-up Ferres, who in her 40s is now developing into a real actress, comes into her own as Marga develops a powerful friendship with Anni, beautifully played by young legiter Hoensbroech in a career-making perf.

A final scene, showing the real-life Marga and Anni visiting the set during filming, seems absolutely right in context. Original German title means “Among Peasants: Savior in the Night.”

Saviors in the Night

Germany-France

Production

A Pandora release of a FilmForm Koln, Pandora Filmproduktion, 3L Filmproduktion (Germany)/Acajou Films (France) production, in association with WDR, Arte. Produced by Joachim von Mengershausen, Karl Baumgartner, Werner Wirsing, Pascal Judelewicz. Executive producers, Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen, Ulf Israel. Co-producers, Gebhard Henke, Michael Andre, Andreas Schreitmueller. Directed by Ludi Boeken. Screenplay, Otto Jaegersberg, Imo Moszkowicz, Heidrun Schleef, based on the memoir “Retter in der Nacht” (Savior in the Night) by Marga Spiegel.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm-to-35mm), Dani Schneor; editor, Suzanne Fenn; music, Martin Meissonnier, Max Raabe; art director, Agnette Schloesser; costume designer, Elisabeth Kraus; sound (Dolby Digital), Josef Poerzchen, Andreas Hildebrandt, Stephane de Rocquigny; associate producer, Noemi Ben Natan Schory; assistant director, Joerg Sander; casting, Sabine Schwedhelm. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 5, 2009. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Veronica Ferres, Armin Rohde, Margarita Broich, Lia Hoensbroech, Luisa Mix, Tjard Krusius, Kilian Schueler, Marlon Kittel, Veit Stuebner, Daniel Flieger, Nicole Unger, Anna Ehrichlandwehr, Smadi Wolfman, Lina Beckmann, Martin Horn. (German, French, English dialogue)
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