Cozying up to evil to save the innocent worked for Oskar Schindler and also, to an extent, for Walter Sueskind, the Amsterdam-based Jewish industrialist who helped the local SS organize “labor-camp” transports for Star of David-wearing adults in order to save hundreds of children from the same fate. Almost the polar opposite of rip-roaring WWII extravaganza “Black Book” by compatriot Paul Verhoeven and the same producers, Rudolf van den Berg’s “Sueskind” is a serious-minded, reined-in and slightly airless historical drama that also explores wartime behavior in shades of gray. Jan. 19 release has been doing boffo biz and has international potential.
German-born protag Walter Sueskind (Jeroen Spitzenberger) fled to the Netherlands, the country of his grandparents, when Nazis started institutionalizing anti-Semitism (though the actual backstory is only fleetingly referenced). When the pic opens in 1942, the Nazi empire also encompasses the Low Countries, and Sueskind complains he’s left “that stinking country only to find that they follow me here.”
After an improvised coup at a Jewish-only variety performance in Amsterdam, Sueskind becomes involved in the local Jewish Council, which the Nazis put in charge of designating those of their own community to be transported to German labor camps. (This perverse solution effected a very orderly deportation of Jews from the Netherlands.)
Sueskind initially sees a profit opportunity — his work for the council exempts him and his family from immediate deportation — but as he grows increasingly aware of what his work really entails, he starts helping young children escape their fate by smuggling them into safety and making them disappear from administrative records.
Being a German as well as a Jew, Sueskind finds it relatively easy to bond with the weak and lonely SS officer in charge of the transports, Aus der Fuenten (Karl Markovics). The men’s slippery bond forms the pic’s central nexus, with Markovics, so good as the Jewish protag in “The Counterfeiters,” here convincingly limning a weaselly Nazi whose crabby human needs inform his flaws. Opposite him, Spitzenberger offers leading-man charisma as well as depth and urgency, as word of what really happens in Germany slowly starts to reach Amsterdam.
Mostly male-dominated film nonetheless offers strong femme roles to Nyncke Beekhuyzen as Sueskind’s unsure wife; Olga Zuiderhoek as one of his accomplices; and Chava Voor in ‘t Holt in a small but pivotal role as a Jewish prostitute.
Some 600 children were smuggled to safety in the Dutch countryside but thankfully, van den Berg focuses on the adults and their more complex moral quandaries, mostly avoiding histrionics or facile, tear-jerking melodrama. The orchestral score similarly shows restraint, relying on fewer instruments in the film’s tensest moments, though the baroque use of the violin in the home stretch is not exactly subtle.
D.p. Guido van Gennep (“Winter in Wartime”) lights Hubert Pouille’s tawny-colored sets in a theatrical way, visually underlining van den Berg’s leitmotif of theater and make-believe. Editing is strong in the first half but the story feels increasingly episodic as it draws to a close, no doubt in order to stay close to the historical record.