I didn’t think it would be possible to make the Holocaust melodramatic and tedious, but ‘The Aryan Couple,’ which was screened on Nov. 14 as the second film of this year’s ‘Sneak Previews with Michael Berlin,’ somehow succeeds at doing exactly that.
Directed by John Daly, the film is all too aware of itself as a film, and makes use of all the typical filmmaking conventions used by dramatic films to create, well, drama: overbearing musical score, histrionic acting and tear-filled revelations and blatant attempts to create nerve-racking suspense where the situation by itself should create all the necessary tension. The result is depressingly conventional and clumsily executed, which is regrettable, because the story (loosely based on a true story) could be far more compelling if it were allowed to.
The film begins in Hungary, 1944, as the wealthy, Jewish Krauzenberg family seeks some opportunity to escape from the slaughter they know is headed their way from the Germans. The opportunity comes in the form of the Europa Plan, instituted by Reichsfuhrer Himmler himself, which allows wealthy Jewish families safe passage to Palestine in exchange for everything they own.
Though Joseph Krauzenberg (Martin Landau, the only actor who gives an appropriately low-key and restrained performance) thinks the choice is easy, he still finds that he has to win at the Germans’ game to save his family. Himmler (Danny Web) arranges for an extravagant dinner to be held at the Krauzenberg estate where Joseph and his wife Rachel (Judy Parfitt) will sign all of the relevant paperwork. If the dinner proceeds smoothly, the Krauzenbergs get to live, and Himmler gets their massive art collection. If not, Himmler declares, the Krauzenbergs leave for Auschwitz.
The problem is the couple to which the title refers: Hans Vassman (Kenny Doughty) and his wife, Ingrid (Caroline Carver). Despite their German blood, they are servants of the Krauzenbergs, a fact which perplexes the Nazis. (‘What is it like, working for a Jew?’ one asks Ingrid.) Furthermore, it is revealed less than 45 minutes into the film, and so this is not much of a spoiler, that the Vassmans are actually Jewish and have been working with the Resistance. When they learn that Himmler and Adolph Eichmann himself (Steven Mackintosh) will be attending the dinner, they wonder what course of action to take, if any. They don’t want to risk the safety of the Krauzenbergs, but at the same time, they know they will have the opportunity to poison two of the most important figures of the Third Reich, which might be too good to pass up.
The dinner takes place precisely halfway through the movie, which makes the structure of the film feel disjointed: the dinner is neither the main setup of the film nor the climax, and so is neither suspenseful nor informative. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that Hans fails to poison Himmler, but nevertheless the film clumsily tries to make us believe he might. We see him preparing coffee for Himmler, and then hear a voice-over from earlier of Ingrid pleading with him not to ‘do anything stupid,’ which should be an immediate clue that Hans will refrain. But when Himmler’s taste-tester comes to test the coffee, the film tries to create a moment of suspense where, we are supposed to believe, Hans forgot about the taste-tester he has had looking over his shoulder the entire night. The manipulation is so transparent it removes any focus from what is supposed to be the core of the story: the people involved.
That, in fact, is one of the main problems with the film: it constantly lets the audience know an important piece of information, and then promptly forgets that we know and tries to turn that into a moment of suspense. As I said, it is revealed well within the first act that the Vassmans are really Jewish, but nevertheless, when they finally reveal their true identities to the Krauzenbergs after the dinner, it is treated like a shocking plot twist.
There is another moment, near the end of the film, after Himmler has discovered the Jewish identity of the Vassmans, when he describes what is to be done with them (which I will not reveal). Despite the fact that we explicitly know Himmler’s instructions, the movie then tries to build suspense as to whether those orders are going to be carried out, which is utterly inane, especially given how the beginning of the film goes to great lengths to establish the unwavering obedience Himmler demands from his soldiers.
All this faux-suspense is created with the use of an overbearing and repetitive musical score, acting that too often dissolves into ostentatious showmanship (except, as noted, by Landau, who is humbling in his quiet desperation to save his family) and a screenplay that tries to be a Hitchcock-esque cat-and-mouse game but instead feels like a soap opera.
The evil of the Nazis is not something that needs to be dressed up in theatrics and stage effects, as Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ and Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ proved effectively. It need only be shown as it was. ‘The Aryan Couple’ tries too hard to create optimism where it is not needed and suspense where it is deceptive, and so ends up having neither. Perhaps the film was supposed to explore the banality of evil, but instead it succeeds in being banal itself.