In 1942, a well-off Jewish cattle dealer named Arthur Bloch was rather arbitrarily chosen for brutal assassination by local Nazi sympathizers in the Swiss hamlet of Payerne. Sixty-six years later, the town’s most famous son published a controversial book just before his own death that dragged this unpleasant historical chapter back into the national spotlight.
Stinging in its concision, screen adaptation “A Jew Must Die” chronicles the last hours of both Bloch — notably played by Bruno Ganz, cinema’s most famous portrayer of Hitler — and author Jacques Chessex, one of Switzerland’s leading 20th-century literary lights. Jacob Berger’s first feature in a decade incorporates deliberate period-blurring anachronisms to underline how the issues of anti-Semitism and fascistic violence remain sadly all too current today. Though its brevity may hinder some distributor interest, this potent drama could hardly be more relevant or effective.
After a brief written introduction informing us that in spring of 1942 the 8-year-old Chessex was “witness to terrible events” in his hometown, we see local police firing in the air to scare off fleeing, presumably Jewish refugees — never mind that forcing them back across the German border is probably a death sentence. Then, incongruously, we see the elderly Chessex (Andre Wilms) alone before a microphone in a studio decades later, barely getting a defensive word in as an unseen panel of cultural watchdogs airily dismiss his latest work as morbid, pretentious and irksome.
It takes a while for viewers to orient themselves in a narrative that’s essentially simple, yet presented unconventionally: Berger allows modern-day trappings (notably some costumes, and virtually all motor vehicles) into scenes otherwise clearly set in the WWII era. Then, the young Jacques (Mathias Svimbersky) is vaguely aware of disturbing trends in his outwardly tranquil wartime village, enough to be shocked when he learns nearly all the adult guests at a dinner party his father (Edmond Vuilloud) brings him to are Jewish. None of them realize that a pack of local goons led by local garage manager Fernand Ischi (Aurelien Patouillard) — such a fanatical would-be Nazi that he’s adopted Der Fuhrer’s haircut and mustache — have chosen a Jew to kill as an example, one whose punishment will send a message of Axis-embraced prejudice in the still officially neutral nation.
The somewhat randomly picked victim is one of the genteel diners, 60-year-old livestock trader Bloch (Ganz). When lured away from a public cattle sale the next day, it’s Bloch’s very kindliness that seals his doom: He’s too polite to refuse a purchase above market rate, and thus unknowingly walks into the clutches of his murderers. The death and its equally savage aftermath are not depicted in gory detail here. But Berger makes their grotesque, cold-blooded specifics clear enough to be chilling.
The ultimate pointlessness as well as barbarism of these acts, not to mention the fascist ideology behind them, is underlined by young Jacques’ bewilderment at the things he witnesses — like finding a presumably Jewish schoolmate stripped, whipped, and tied to a tree — and by the angry stupidity of the conspirators. They’re easily manipulated by Fernand, who in turn answers to a pro-Nazi pastor (Claude Vuillemin) too “respectable” to dirty his own hands with direct involvement, even if the assassination seems to have been his idea.
A postscript informs viewers that these men paid for their crime by serving limited prison sentences. Chessex’s later refusal to let the case comfortably fade into the past was met with an exasperated sense that justice already had been served; the author’s was precisely the kind of nagging reminder that many fellow countrywomen would see as “morbid” and unnecessary, as it punctured their continuing illusion of noble Swiss neutrality during the war. (Switzerland’s business sector, in particular, notoriously benefited from exploiting legal loopholes to trade with Nazi Germany.) The many controversies at home for the prolific author (and painter) often contrasted with the acclaim accorded him elsewhere; among other accolades, in 1973, he became the first non-French citizen to win the literary Prix Concourt.
Though its surface anachronisms may confuse some viewers, “A Jew Must Die” has an admirable, unadorned directness in all other departments, from the relatively spare use of dialogue and music (the latter drawn from urgent string-based works by various modern composers) to the classical elegance of d.p. Luciano Tovoli’s compositions. The performances are impeccable, with Patouillard duly alarming in the showiest role.
By the time the film ends with vintage B&W footage of actual Swiss Nazis on parade, Berger’s time-muddling gambits have made his point crystal clear: Denying the worst of the past only heightens the likelihood that it may one day repeat itself.