In the fascinating Swedish documentary “Every Face Has a Name,” helmer Magnus Gertten tracks down and interviews survivors from German concentration camps seen in a 35mm archival film reel showing their arrival at the harbor of Malmo, Sweden, on April 28, 1945. The group includes Jews from all over Europe, Norwegian prisoners of war, Polish mothers and children, members of the French resistance and British spies — and perhaps unique among them, a young Italian-American who was accused of being a spy while visiting her grandparents and deported to Auschwitz. Fests, Jewish-interest programmers and broadcasters will appreciate their valuable testimony.
Winner of the Church of Sweden’s significant cash prize at the recent Gothenburg Film Festival, the pic is a sequel of sorts to helmer Gertten’s 2012 “Harbor of Hope,” which used the same black-and-white archival footage, shot by Gustaf Boge Claredio for Swedish National Television, as a starting point. “Harbor” was broadcast worldwide and traveled the fest circuit, thus enabling many more of the refugees pictured to be named.
Figuring prominently here is the shocking story of Elsie Ragusin, a now-93-year-old Roman Catholic who lives in Orlando, Fla. The only Italian-American to survive Auschwitz, she went with her father to visit relatives in their home country in 1939; the pair found themselves stuck there when Italy entered the war in 1941 and were soon arrested by Germans who accused them of espionage.
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New York-based brother-sister duo Bernhard Kempler and Anita Lobel relate their remarkable survival tale with a surprising lack of sentiment. Bernhard was 9 years old when he came to Malmo, having remained alive during the war by dressing as a girl. He and older sister Anita were sent away from Krakow by their parents and spent the war years together, under false identities, constantly escaping and hiding. When they were finally reunited with their parents in Sweden in 1947, he recalls that he felt no emotion, only the feeling they he didn’t want to be looked at.
In contrast, former Norwegian POW Svenn Martinsen is obviously moved by the images of his 23-year-old self disembarking in Malmo after two-and-a-half years in captivity. He recalls the sense of cognitive dissonance he felt, not able to believe that this was freedom at last. More disturbingly, he recounts being at a camp outside Hamburg where the SS were performing experiments on Jewish children. The Norwegians hatched a plan with the Swedish Red Cross to rescue the kids, but before it could be carried out, the youngsters were murdered.
The interviewees also provide some important context for the images in the archival footage, and it’s almost unbearably moving to watch as they identify mothers and friends. Fredzia Marmur describes the Red Cross parcels that the refugee women and girls are clutching. Somewhat chillingly in retrospect, the archival footage includes plentiful scenes inside open-air showers and sanitation tents where the women wash, dispose of their clothing and are examined by medical personnel. None of the interviewees mention the contrast with the “showers” awaiting arrivals at the extermination camps.
Perhaps the least successful aspect of “Every Face Has a Name” is Gertten’s attempt to forge a comparison with today’s global war-refugee situation. Throughout the film, editor Jesper Osmund cuts to a small harbor in Sicily where Gertten and his team filmed as nearly 600 refugees arrived after a dramatic journey over the Mediterranean Sea. The provision of names and homelands for these contemporary faces is poignant, but the extensive footage of people and emergency services waiting at the Italian dock only serves to make the film’s brief running time feel padded. A more significant comparison to explore might have been Sweden’s openness to the WWII refugees, as opposed to the nearly closed borders of today’s EU countries.
Tech package looks fine, with a new 4k scan of the archival footage revealing novel details.