On May 13, 1939, the Germany luxury liner, St. Louis set sail from Hamburg with a human cargo of 937 bound for Havana, Cuba. They were never intended to land; rather, to be made a global example of the undesirable Jew in a brutal public relations tactic perpetuated by the Nazis. History teaches, alas – only in retrospect – that such perversity in this undertaking could only have been orchestrated by Adolph Hitler’s Germany; one of many warped insanities inflicted on the victimized in the name of national pride and racial purity. However, the audacity of both Cuba and America’s governments to openly refuse, these already condemned and cast adrift, safe harbor – thus, practically ensuring their return to Hamburg (and by extension, their deaths) speaks to an even more insidious and shameful appeasement; a blight on the moral character of several ‘great nations’ (one, whose Lady Liberty had never denied the downtrodden and destitute anything before), and a rather disgusting display of prejudice wed to reprehensible cowardice, marking the beginning of one of the most infamous chapters in human history, soon to plunge half the western hemisphere into flames.
The events that transpired on this fateful crossing are poignantly – if, somewhat melodramatically, realized in director Stuart Rosenberg’s Voyage of the Damned (1976); produced from the book of the same title, co-written by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts two years earlier. As a movie, Voyage of the Damned plays very much as homage to the glittering all-star screen spectacles from the 1950’s and 60’s (most notably, Stanley Kramer’s similarly occupied, Ship of Fools, 1965 - though hardly as light-hearted or soap opera-ish), that had gradually morphed into more ominously themed, though no less star-packed, film fare a la the likes of Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure by 1972.
It behooves the reader of this review to reconsider a bit of history beforehand. The St. Louis, under Captain Gustav Schröder’s benevolent command, was denied entry into Havana by Cuba’s President, Federico Laredo Brú, despite the fact each passenger aboard was in possession of a legally obtained visa. Under a new immigration law, conveniently instituted a week before the St. Louis set sail, Cuba could now legally deny all foreigners – except Americans – entry as either tourists or political refugees; requiring a $500 bond and authorization from both their easily corruptible secretaries of state and labor. Hence, all visas issued prior to the new law were retroactively invalidated. The St. Louis would spend exactly six days docked at the far end of Havana’s harbor, with only 22 of its non-Jewish passengers allowed to temporarily disembark. Afterward, Capt. Schröder was forced to depart.
There remains some evidence to suggest U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, acting under President Franklin Roosevelt’s authority, along with representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, made several attempts at negotiations with Cuba’s government to accept these political martyrs. Baring the failure of these deliberations, Capt. Schröder proceeded to Florida as an alternative port. Instead, America not only denied the St. Louis safe harbor, but had its Coast Guard fire a warning shot with a declaration to the vessel that it was in violation of maritime law. With limited rations and fuel, Capt. Schröder had no choice but to return to Germany. While it is nevertheless true America had passed the Immigration Act of 1924, restricting the number of ‘new’ immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, the plight of these passengers on board the St. Louis – and their inevitable fate awaiting its return in Hamburg – could not have been lost on F.D.R.; Hitler’s rounding up of ‘undesirables’ for his concentration camps begun in 1933 and in full swing by 1939.
Shadowed by the coast guard for several days, Capt. Schröder was entirely unaware of a small contingent of academics and clergy in Canada who had become involved in an attempt to persuade their Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King to accept the St. Louis at Halifax. In fact, the ship was a mere two day’s journey from Nova Scotia when hostile anti-Jewish sentiment within Canada’s immigration and cabinet ministers crushed any hope for positive intervention. Capt. Schröder then contemplated running the St. Louis aground, thereby forcing its rescue at sea. However, in the eleventh hour of their return to Europe, U.S. officials orchestrated a secure route for the ship to Antwerp, Belgium; the refugees divided amongst the accepting nations of Belgium, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. The St. Louis then returned empty to Hamburg, where Capt. Schröder was briefly arrested on an erroneous charge of ‘war crimes’. Schröder, a German gentleman of the old school, was later exonerated, surviving the war, and ultimately, decorated for his valor and bravery for his efforts on this voyage.
With Hitler’s blitzkrieg bearing down on all European nations at the height of the war, every Jewish citizen, including those refugees from the St. Louis, were once again plunged into imminent peril. Of the 620 who had set sail aboard her, only a mere 87 were allowed to immigrate abroad before the start of the war. Conservatively, it has been estimated less than half of the remaining actually survived the war and holocaust. Voyage of the Damned is relatively faithful to this plight of the unwanted; adding star power and a bit of cleverly orchestrated ‘drama’ to the exercise; the screenplay remaining reverent to the historical record while carefully understanding and adhering to the time-honored precepts of popularized entertainment. Hence, what we get in Voyage of the Damned is something of a minor soap opera that never impugns the dignity of the more heart-wrenching tale it is attempting to tell. Our passenger list is chocked full of great performers, some immediately recognizable to American audiences, but most derived from a phenomenal back-catalogue of superb European stars.
Fay Dunaway headlines, as Denise Kreisler, the elegant wife of Professor Egon (Oskar Werner); denied the right to practice medicine in his native Germany. Also aboard the St. Louis are Lili Rosen (Lee Grant), her embittered husband, Carl (Sam Wanamaker) and their attractive teenage daughter, Anna (Lynne Frederick). Another passenger, Julia Fienchild (Julie Harris) is sailing to Havana to be reunited with her two young children whom she has not seen in a while. In reality, the real Fienchild would not see her family until war’s end in 1946. Meanwhile, Rebecca Weiler (Wendy Hiller) and her husband (Luther Adler) are hoping to begin anew; the latter gravely ill and destined never to share in this future. Last of the more prominently featured passengers are Mr. Hauser (Nehemiah Persoff) and his wife (Maria Schell), who are desperate to be reunited with their only daughter, Mira (Katherine Ross), already living in Cuba for some time.
Unbeknownst to either, Mira has since become a prostitute in one of Havana’s more fashionable brothels, later using her clout with several high profile politicos to orchestrate a reunion between Dr. Erich Strauss (Victor Spinetti) – already living in Havana – and his two young daughters; both trapped aboard the St. Louis. At the start of the movie, we witness Strauss’ estranged wife, Leni (Janet Suzman) tearfully sending the girls on ahead. Suzman, a fine stage actress, is nevertheless overwrought in her brief performance herein. But Victor Spinetti is sublime; perfectly extoling the heart-wrenching angst beyond the obviousness of a few well-placed and equally well-timed tears to convey a father’s determination.
In many ways, Dr. Strauss’ backstory is the most poignantly featured in the movie; providing the necessary thread to allow the audience its own shore leave in Havana, but also to more clearly comprehend the deviancies in that country’s political machinery at work; Cuba’s terse and stalwart President, Federico Laredo Brú’s (Fernando Rey) stance against accepting any passengers is fleshed out by his wily, Minister of Immigration, Manuel Benitez (José Ferrer) and the backroom muckraking of political puppet master/businessman, José Estedes (Orson Welles); also, by the compassionate, Dr. Juan Remos (James Mason) who, after an intervention perpetrated by Mira, and his own chance meeting with the tear-stained Strauss, orders Estedes, at gunpoint - and in Strauss’ presence - to immediately file a pair of visas, allowing for Strauss’ children to rejoin him on land. The Havana cast is completed by Michael Constantine as Cuba’s oily immigration liaison, Luis Clasing and Ben Gazarra as Morris Troper; the easily aggravated emissary of America’s Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who quickly discovers he cannot prevent the St. Louis from sailing away.
The St. Louis is commanded by Capt. Gustav Schröder (Max Von Sydow) who cannot abide Adolph Hilter’s Nazi Germany, but is quietly forced to maintain at least the veneer of his acceptance under Otto Schiendick’s (Helmut Griem) watchful eye. Schiendick, masquerading as a porter, has been sent as a government spy aboard the St. Louis, quickly inciting crew members in their shared hatred of the Jewish people on board. These indignations are subtle, though obvious; as in the substitution of a pro-Nazi newsreel, featuring Hitler at one of his rallies, for the originally proposed – and non-offense – romantic comedy passengers were expecting to see. More ominous is Schiendick’s threats made to various crew non-compliant with his Nazism, including the captain’s personal steward, Max Gunter (Malcolm McDowell), whom he suspects of being a closeted Jew, and seaman Heinz Berg (Anthony Higgins); the latter standing up to Schiendick’s threats, spitting in his face, and shortly thereafter beaten to an unconscious pulp by crew loyal to Schiendick, before being cast overboard.
By all accounts, no such acts occurred during this real-life voyage of the damned to Cuba, though it undeniably makes for some excellent light touches of artistic license masquerading as high drama. In fact, Capt. Schröder made every possible allowance to see his passengers were treated with the utmost respect; affording lavish accommodations and amenities; even throwing parties for the refugees in the ballroom, allowing their children to take swimming lessons in the on-deck pool, and providing the proper venue to hold their religious services. In the movie, these luxuries are frowned upon by Schiendick, who repeatedly pressures the captain with reprisals – possibly even prison - once the ship has returned to Germany.
Regrettably, nothing can quell the growing anxiety amongst the passengers on board. As Voyage of the Damned proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, the audience shares in this growing frenzy; the bittersweet passing of Professor Weiler and his burial at sea; the marital rift growing between Denise and Egon, the latter having indulged in an affair that, by his own confession meant absolutely nothing; the attempted mutiny by emasculated concentration camp survivors, Joseph Manasse (Jonathan Pryce), Aaron Pozner (Paul Koslo) along with others, effectively thwarted by Egon’s last minute reasoning; the Hauser’s growing bittersweet awareness that their daughter is a prostitute, and finally, Carl Rosen’s spiraling into a nervous breakdown, causing him to attempt suicide with a straight razor before jumping into the sea.
Perhaps nowhere is this emotional implosion elevated to its most Shakespearean tome, then in the gentle burgeoning romance between Max and the Rosen’s daughter, Anna. After her beleaguered father is rescued and taken ashore in Havana to save his life, Anna tenderly confesses to Max her fears – knowing a return to Germany will mean life/or death inside a concentration camp before she has even had the opportunity to ‘become a woman’. She makes Max promise her he will not allow this to happen. In response, he quietly prepares them a loving glass of shared red wine, laced with poison. Hours later, Capt. Schröder discovers the pair lying nude and dead in Max’s cabin; the latest casualties of this ill-fated voyage.
Voyage of the Damned is a tautly scripted melodrama with some very fine points made and equally as impressive performances given throughout. And while the movie undeniably maintains its theater of dread for 160 minutes, it never quite rises above this even keel to a more dramatically satisfying arc. The movie’s penultimate moment comes when Schröder informs Egon – whom he has come to trust as a viable liaison between the passengers – of his intent to set fire to the St. Louis after running her aground off the coast of England, thereby forcing an evacuation and rescue at sea. We are shown the orders being given; various crew soaking rags in gasoline, placed in large drums about the deck and engine room. But these are never lit, as the perfunctory conclusion comes too soon, thereby staving off the suspense; Capt. Schröder reading aloud a transcribed wireless cablegram to his gathered passengers, explaining their salvation by way of a safe port in Brussels.
As the passengers applaud their good fortune, Billy Williams’ cinematography relies on a series of freeze-frames epilogues to explain the fate of those passengers more prominently featured in the screenplay. We learn, for example, that the Hausers were eventually reunited with Mira in Havana, as Alice Fienchild was with her two children – though not until war’s end, nearly eight long years later; that Carl Rosen survived his suicide attempt and was later reunited with Lili, though it remains unclear how he took the news of Anna’s death; and finally, that both Joseph and Aaron were sent back to Auschwitz where they were eventually exterminated. Generally speaking, the freeze-frame device isn’t bad – just awkward and seemingly tacked on as an afterthought; more of an interruption than triumphant release of all the stressful dangers gone before it, instead of capping off the story with any sort of genuinely satisfying conclusion.
Billy Williams’ softly lensed cinematography attempts a vintage look; but it belies the decidedly seventies strain that popularized this diffused lighting technique. Much more successful is Lalo Schifrin’s underscore; mostly consisting of re-orchestrated pop standards from the late 1920’s to mid-1930’s, as well as incorporating a bombastic original composition as Voyage of the Damned’s central theme. Schifrin’s cues cleverly punctuate the mood of the piece without drawing undue attention to themselves; the hallmark of a gifted composer. Too bad movie poster artwork of the day, with depictions of Faye Dunaway and Oskar Werner racing across the St. Louis’ decks, as a struggle between passengers and crew is breaking out behind them, attempted to ignite the fancy of potential ticket buyers by manufacturing an erroneous claim to the action/adventure genre. Voyage of the Damned is a drama – period. Its historical underpinnings aside, it is evenly paced, expertly played, but hardly up to generating the sort of thrills, chills and spills one might associate with an action movie. Although Voyage of the Damned was nominated for three Academy Awards, it was did fairly disappointing business at the box office. That’s a shame.
Viewed today, the merit of Voyage of the Damned remains its’ exceptionally fine performances; best of these - Max von Sydow, who lends immense nobility to the role of the captain. Honorable mention must also go to Oskar Werner’s sublimely aware, yet utterly defeated Egon Kriesler, and to Orson Welles’ slick businessman, plying his penchant for strong drink, cigars, and, tastefully clad whores with his own inimitable world-weary disregard for the fate of the passengers, though tinged with a modicum of equally as careworn empathy for Dr. Strauss. Finally, we tip our hats to James Mason’s eleventh hour virtuosity, bringing Strauss’ plight to a most satisfying conclusion. Mason’s great gift to the movies has always been his intense command of the English language. Without ever raising so much as an eyebrow, much less his voice, he has always managed to convey a sense of reckoning authority. Wilfred Shingleton and Jack Stephens’ set design is competent on a relatively modest budget, and Phyllis Dalton’s costumes do capture the essential design elements from the period. But in the final analysis, Voyage of the Damned is compelling viewing because of its cast. The rest doesn’t mean much. Then again, it really doesn’t have to when the performances are universally this good.
Voyage of the Damned comes to us via ITV Studios, in a fairly abysmal 1080p transfer that really doesn’t do the film justice. For starters, there is a ton of age-related artifacts riddling this print; not merely nicks and scratches, but color bleeding, occasional mis-registration issues and glaring horizontal tears that streak across the screen intermittently, and are thoroughly distracting throughout. Color is another issue; flesh tones far too piggy pink, the overall radiance appearing to suffer from encroaching vinegar syndrome; the color palette adopting a rather unnatural blue-green hue. Contrast is decidedly weak. This is one faded-looking print. Film grain is also inconsistently handled. In some scenes it’s quite thick, while in others it’s practically nonexistent. Just awful. The 2.0 mono is adequate – barely – occasionally revealing some low grade hiss – though, ironically, no pop. Extras are limited to a truncated photo montage in silence (why bother?) and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. In spots, the trailer has more appealing overall color fidelity and contrast levels than the actual feature. I cannot understand ITV releasing Voyage of the Damned in such deplorable condition. My recommendation is thus: see the movie if you can via a borrowed copy from your local library or video store – because, Voyage of the Damned is definitely worthy of a second look. But don’t waste your money on this disc. It’s a Frisbee.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)