A damned poignant, Oscar-Nominated Best Supporting Actress performance…
Lee Grant stars as a Jewish refugee on an ocean liner that was refused entry to Cuba in 1939 in a Nazi propaganda stunt.
On embarking on the Lovely Lee Grant blogathon with Angelman’s Place, Voyage of the Damned (1976) caught my eye. This as I discovered the film was based on historical events. After reading more on this true story, it left a strong impression on me and I was keen to watch the film version of this tale. The film based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts.
The film also boasts a fantastically talented and acclaimed all-star international cast including today’s star of the show, the lovely Lee Grant. Grant stars with actors from Denholm Elliott to Orson Welles and actresses from Faye Dunaway to Maria Schell. There are so many big acting names – such as James Mason, Lynne Frederick, Sam Wanamaker, Katharine Ross and Leonard Rossiter – popping up in between this made it a much watch movie.
The story tells of the true historical events surrounding the MS St Louis in May 1939, but with told with fictitious names and events to protect those involved. This boat left Hamburg with a passenger list of 937 German Jews heading for what they hoped would be a new life in Havana, Cuba.
However, this voyage was merely a propaganda stunt by the Nazis, knowing full well the passengers wouldn’t be allowed to stay there. The boat then would have to return to Germany and the passengers would be sent to concentration camps if no other world countries allowed the passengers asylum. This would then strengthen and support the Nazis belief, that Jews were also unwanted by the world and justifying the Holocaust.
The story starts on the night before sailing, where two shaven-headed men, Aaron Pozner (Paul Koslo) and Joseph Manasse (Jonathan Pryce), are beaten up by some Nazi brown shirts. The pair’s fate is uncertain, and this scene a disturbing reflection of the growing anti-Semitic feeling in the country.
On 13 May 1939, a number of passengers are introduced as they check-in, with J stamped on their passports. Here we see a fearful, looking Lili (Grant) with husband Carl Rosen (Sam Wanamaker) and their daughter Anna at the docks. Carl asking about the whereabouts of a missing suitcase containing all their personal belongings. Lili and her daughter (Lynne Frederick) appear both frightened and uncertain.
At the docked boat, heartrending scenes include a young mother Leni Strauss (Janet Suzman) saying a tearful last farewell to her two wee girls. Their father Erich is meeting them in Havana. Her male companion curt and without emotion. The girls later entrusted to the optimistic, Alice Fienchild (Julie Harris), a woman with two daughters awaiting her in Cuba.
All the passengers are observed from afar by Captain Schroeder (Max Von Sydow). Arriving with a touch of glamour, the rich Denise (Faye Dunaway) and her husband, Professor Egon Kreisler (Oskar Werner) join the others. As the boat leaves the shore, a brass band is playing. This act adds a chill to your spine, as you see and feel the misguided optimism from the passengers on the boat.
These scenes at the dockside are all on the surface appear hopeful, heart-warming scenes. But here they fill you with dread knowing the back story. Desperately, I hoped that this film (and history) will change course with a less tragic end for all the passengers.
As there are many tales within this story, it is the Rosens I will primarily concentrate on. Along with Grant’s stirring, emotional and empathetic performance as Lili Rosen. Schroeder’s compassion, warmth, benevolence and genuineness are shown in a kindly portrayal from Von Sydow.
After boarding the boat, the Captain ensures that the passengers are treated with equal status by the German non-Jewish crew. The Captain disciplines those crew members who do not show the passengers respect or dignity. The passengers now happily re-enjoy previously forbidden pleasures such as non-rationed food, dances, church services and the cinema.
A portrait of Hitler taken down, and the Star of the David, a Jewish symbol replaces it. Nazi-related propaganda songs and films are forbidden, as the Captain learns these shown to the passengers. Simultaneously, in scenes in Cuba, we learn the passengers’ visas are seen as no longer valid.
In chilling and foreboding scenes, the passengers’ now uncertain future is discussed by the authorities. There are unscrupulous powers that be, including a sugar merchant, José Estedes (Orson Welles) who seems only concerned for his business. The passengers are seen as a commodity with a price on their head by some with more political leanings.
In contrast, there are well-meaning advocates for the passengers, still travelling there and blissfully unaware of what is happening in Cuba. A Jewish American named Morris Troper (Ben Gazzara) travels to Cuba to argue the passengers’ need for asylum. Troper looks into money deals to stop Cuban concerns that the refugees won’t hurt the country economically and becomes aware of the rising anti-Jewish feeling on the island.
In Cuba, there are more personal heart-rending tales. We watch the then events of doctor and father to the wee girls, Dr Erich Strauss (Victor Spinetti). He tries vainly to obtain their release to his care. His Cuban negotiations taking him to the highest powers, as he meets with Dr Juan Remos (James Mason), who ensures the girls can join him.
This is through the help of an understanding prostitute, Mira Hauser (Katharine Ross) and her connections to the Cuban government. This an empathetic response, as we learn as her parents (Maria Schell and Nehemiah Persoff) are also onboard the apparently doomed boat.
Once the boat is docked in Cuba, Mr Hoffmann manages to get on board and he reveals the Nazis true motives to a shocked and appalled Captain. This conversation is overheard by Gunter (Malcolm McDowell). Both men are devastated to learn that the boat and its passengers will have to return to Germany unless other countries intervene. The passengers learn their visas are longer valid and they may have to return to Germany.
We watch some distressing scenes between Mira (Katharine Ross) and her parents in what may be their short time together. On the boat, the Captain makes a futile stand with both crew and passengers. Everyone is forbidden to disembark.
However, Hoffmann makes threats to the Captain and his family. The humanitarian Schroeder on leaving the Cuban docks, then orders the redirection of the boat to America. This is in the hope the passengers will get asylum there… and I urge you to watch the remainder of this thought-provoking film.
Let’s now return to Lili and her family’s journey on embarking on this voyage. This is in her emotional journey. Her first scenes show her as she checks in, and she seems an anxious woman not wanting to draw attention to herself or her family. However, she seems protective and fearful for her and her small family.
Lili appears less non-judgmental of the others than her husband, but she’s afraid of the Nazis. This is seen as she checks in and her reaction after husband Carl shouts “murderers” at some Nazi naval officers, as the boat leaves the shore. This unnerving Lili and she seems ashamed yet concerned for her husband.
Grant projects her character as a strong, positive woman on the outside whilst with the others on the boat. She shows a close protective bond to her daughter and husband. She loves her husband, understanding his anger due to the anti-Jews feelings as they leave their home country.
Lili supports and bolsters him up to try to quell his increasing anxieties and fears. She talks of her hopes for their new start in Havana. This is seen with her hopeful optimism trying fervently to reassure her family (and herself).
The Rosens and Kreislers meet at the first class dining and ballroom. Carl directs an angry tirade towards Egon Kreisler. There he challenges the Doctor on his non-judgemental behaviour back home after Egon confesses to treating SS Germans.
Carl and Lili then leave and come to blows with their opposing views of their family’s situation. He is still preoccupied by their lost suitcase, which has their connections of their old life. She talks of their new life and future. Lili supports and holds her husband as he breaks down in tears.
Lili tries to shelter her daughter, Anna from her increasing fears and from Carl’s low mood. In these scenes we feel Grant showing the strengths of this matriarch and wife, and her showing her love and support for her family. This strong woman a complete contrast when compared with Lili’s future scenes. She encourages Anna to find friends to distract her from her father’s upset.
Anna then finds love with a young German crew member and Schroeder’s assistant, Max Gunter (Malcolm McDowell). This relationship appears as a sweet, true and innocent love. It beautifully reflected in a few tender scenes between Frederick and McDowell.
It is believed her parents unaware of this burgeoning, fated romance. However I feel on discovering the romance, may have partly led to Lili’s eventual emotional breakdown. However, in Cuban waters, her husband is thrown into a severe panic after he hears the horn signalling the boat’s return to Germany.
Carl becomes severely agitated and distressed at his fears of returning home. He screams with anguish, as Wanamaker gives a powerful realistic performance. Carl attempts suicide by cutting his wrists. Then in an act of desperation, he throws himself off the boat.
Here Lili on realising these screams come from her husband is immediately frightened. She’s both frantic and concerned for her husband and his pain is hers. Here the anguished reaction of the actress is incredibly moving and Grant’s acting compelling. In this disturbing scene, Grant appears to relate well with her character’s situation.
We immediately feel her character’s heartbreak, upset and sorrow. Carl is rescued and then taken away by the Cuban police. Lili is left bereft, and she and her daughter unclear of his fate. This incident is shown with the most harrowing of images ends, as Anna holds her distraught mother.
It’s now up to her daughter, to support her now apparently mute and catatonic mother. Lili is now a much weaker, withdrawn and depressed character. In another cruel blow on hearing of their possible return to Germany, a frightened Anna believes she will be sent to the camps. After she and Gunter make love, Anna kills herself in a suicide pact with him by her side in the last embrace.
Two weeks later, Lili is now apparently alone in her life,. She appears a devastated and broken woman. This shown in her tragic, outward portrayal by Grant. I can feel Lili’s hurting and emotional pain in Grant’s performance here. Lili both hates and is angry with herself.
Alone in her grief, she is seen cutting her hair as a penance for shutting out and not being there for her daughter. Denise confronts Lili on this behaviour and offers her support, adding Carl is alive. This news gives Lili the inner strength to move on.
In the final prologue, we are told of the fate of the passengers. It discovered that Lili was reunited with her husband in England, and this news a happy note. But if only others in the story had been so lucky with some others affected by the later anti-Semitic events of World War II.
Other stories within this film include the Kreisler’s united facade covering up for their marital problems and Wendy Hiller as Professor Weiler’s wife Josephine, who watches her gravely ill husband slowly dying. These are a couple of those so many compelling, moving and heartbreaking performances told by this strong sterling cast.
All the stars gave touching, credible and memorable portrayals, without exception. But, to single out Grant’s Lili, I’m stunned that in this her fourth (and final) Oscar nominated role this actress was not awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In this role, Lee Grant, then like the bridesmaid but the should have been bride. It really was a case of close but no cigar.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 /10/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: 0/10
This post was added to my Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon with Angelman’s Place. Other posts with this cast include Lee Grant stars in Damien: Omen II, The Swarm, Columbo and Airport 77. James Mason is written about in my review on North by Northwest, North Sea Hijack and Yellowbeard. Leonard Rossiter stars in Water and Prime Time Soap Star Adverts. Faye Dunaway stars in Network, Bonnie and Clyde and The Towering Inferno. Julie Harris starred in Knots Landing. Katherine Ross starred in The Legacy Jonathan Bryce in Murder is Easy. Sam Wanamaker in Baby Boom. Max Von Sydow in The Force Awakens, Escape to Victory and Shutter Island. Denholm Elliott in A Room with a View and Madam Sin.