Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Kjell Grede - God afton, Herr Wallenberg - En Passionshistoria från verkligheten AKA Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg (1990)



Raoul Wallenberg, the subject of Kjell Grede's deeply unsettling film "Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg," is considered one of the great heroes of World War II. A mild-mannered, apolitical upper-class Swede who was an importer of luxury foods from Hungary, he was directly responsible for saving thousands of Hungarian Jews from massacre by the Nazis.

In the film's opening scene, Wallenberg is traveling in the luxury dining car of a train speeding through central Europe when it suddenly halts, and policemen run through the cars drawing the shades. Peeking out his window, Wallenberg watches the bodies of Jewish prisoners being dumped from the cattle car of a freight train across the tracks. One is a little boy whose father leaps out to be with him and is shot to death clutching the dead child in his arms.

The horrifying scene is only a prelude of what is to come in the film, which opens today at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The Swedish director doesn't shy away from graphic portrayals of Nazi brutality. Again and again, people are shot almost at random, like stray dogs who have suddenly become a nuisance. A young woman is savagely beaten with a rifle butt. And in the most harrowing sequence, dozens of dazed, shivering young men are stripped to the waist, lined up against a wall and mowed down by a firing squad in front of their families.

What gives these scenes an especially chilling resonance is the utter casualness of it all. More sharply than any film in recent memory, "Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg" depicts the Nazi campaign against the Jews as coldly executed by people who viewed their victims as contaminated and therefore disposable. Appeals to humanity meant little to murderers who refused to recognize the humanness of those they slaughtered.

The film is set mostly in Budapest in late 1944, where Wallenberg is using phony documents of Swedish citizenship to install Hungarian Jews in safe houses from which they can be evacuated in small groups. Wallenberg operates with impunity largely because he is a master of authoritarian bluff. He can outshout any officer who might be suspicious of his rescue missions, and he is expert at tweaking bureaucratic paranoia to his advantage.

"Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg" tells parallel stories. In the more compelling of the two, Wallenberg, using trumped-up papers, arranges the rescue of a group of about 20 Jews, only to have the truck that is supposed to transport them to safety stall in front of the building where they were hiding. As they huddle in the vehicle for two days and nights on a back street in the heart of Budapest, Wallenberg attempts to prevent their massacre by the jumpy Hungarian collaborationist officer who guards them.

At the same time, Wallenberg learns that an order has been given to kill the 65,000 Jews in the Budapest ghetto. Although informed that his usefulness is over and that his death has been ordered, Wallenberg refuses to leave the city, and in one brilliant final bluff, he tries to save the ghetto by confronting the general who will be responsible. It is a race against time. The Soviet Army has surrounded Budapest. And Adolph Eichmann, the region's top Nazi, and his adjutant have left the city.

A film of epic ambitions, "Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg" is particularly good at evoking a feeling of absolute chaos at a moment when the world is in a state of collapse. The eerily silent back street in which a rapidly diminishing group of survivors and their captor wait for their fate to descend is like an apocalyptic eye of the storm.

"Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg" is also an unabashed hagiography in which, perhaps inevitably, the characters are dwarfed by events. As portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, Wallenberg is a heroic man of action who is entirely sympathetic, but also unknowable. In those moments when the film tries to humanize him, the tone turns preachy and portentous.

Wallenberg forms an attachment to Marja, a half-mad survivor who witnessed the slaughter of her two children and who imagines that if she appeared naked in front of the Nazis they would realize she is made of the same flesh and blood. Although the character is well acted by Katharina Thalbach, she becomes too much of a symbolic mouthpiece. And Wallenberg's romantic interest in her seems thuddingly unbelievable.

Less than a month after the events portrayed in the film, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the Russians. He was never released. An epigraph to the film reflects: "Raoul Wallenberg saved directly and indirectly a hundred thousand lives. We didn't save his."

Published: April 23, 1993

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included: german (hard-subbed)
eng subs:

no pass