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Movie Review

Saviors in the Night

Crosscurrents carry ‘Saviors’ beyond rote survival tale

From left: Lia Hoensbroech, Luisa Mix, and Veronica Ferres in a story of Catholics hiding Jews in WWII Germany. From left: Lia Hoensbroech, Luisa Mix, and Veronica Ferres in a story of Catholics hiding Jews in WWII Germany. (Michael Boehme)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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The little girl (Luisa Mix) is telling a ghost story, and one of her companions wants to know if the specter was white, like a sheet. “Real ghosts look like us,’’ she solemnly insists, and perhaps she knows. A Jew hiding in a German Catholic farming community at the height of World War II, she’s more or less officially dead. Yet she lives on through the grace of those around her.

“Saviors in the Night’’ is the latest of the Holocaust-era survivors’ tales, each of which tells its own specific story from specific memories. Some of these films feel rote; as directed with stolid straightforwardness by Ludi Boeken, “Saviors’’ is lifted up and made special by the complexities and social crosscurrents of the people it depicts. To do the Christian thing among these dour Westphalians is to hide Jews from the government, even as they’re sending their own sons to fight for the Fuehrer.

Based on the memoirs of Marga Spiegel, “Saviors’’ begins in mid-1943 as her husband, a Jewish horse trader named Menne (Armin Rohde), sees the trains leaving for the east and breaks his wife and young daughter, Karin (Mix), out of the labor camp in which they’re interned. A decorated World War I veteran, Menne is now a target to everyone but his old army buddies, primarily the lean, terse Heinrich Aschoff (Martin Horn), and the other farmers in their corner of western Germany. Aschoff takes in Marga (Veronica Ferres) and Karin; his wife, the redoubtable Frau Aschoff (Margarita Broich) insists the cross stay on her bedroom wall and thanks God that the blond Marga doesn’t look Jewish at all.

The small, unforced achievement of “Saviors in the Night’’ is to give us a portrait of small-town Germany during the waning days of the war that feels finely observed and true. The real division between the chic, slender Marga and her rough protectors is class, not religion, and Frau Aschoff scoffs defensively at this glamorous interloper until she realizes that Marga is prepared to do the heavy lifting of both farm work and friendship.

And, too, everyone has their secrets, kept carefully from fellow villagers and even family members. The Aschoff’s teenage daughter, Anni (Lia Hoensbroech), is a gung-ho member of the local German Girls club and the last person who should know her parents are hiding Jews. Make that the second-to-last, since her boyfriend (Daniel Flieger) is part of the Hitler Youth. Papa, meanwhile, stays up late listening to forbidden BBC broadcasts while his neighbor (Veit Stübner) squirrels away Menne in his hayloft. The unexpected message of “Saviors in the Night’’ is that only the adults understand the futility of the war and the murderousness of their leaders. It’s the kids who aren’t all right.

Some of this is dramatized strongly; some of it less so. Anni’s awakening to the cruelties of her countrymen feels pat and underwritten. By contrast, scenes of Menne slowly losing his mind over several years of hiding — within a mile of his wife and daughter, no less — echo the despairing madness of Polanski’s “The Pianist.’’ And Marga’s wavering loyalties — her raging joy when the Allies bomb Münster and her sorrow when her protectors experience their own losses — becomes the emotional through-line of the movie.

That line extends through to the end credits, where we see the real-life Marga and Anni, still fast friends, greet the director, crew, and actors playing them. The moment feels charged and privileged, yet the two elderly women shrug off the weight. Goodness is what you do, not who you are, and it’s a lesson they learned long, long ago.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

SAVIORS IN THE NIGHT Directed by: Ludi Boeken

Written by: Otto Jägersberg, Imo Moszkowicz, Heidrun Schleef, based on the book by Marga Spiegel

Starring: Veronica Ferres, Armin Rohde, Lia Hoensbroech, Margarita Broich, Martin Horn

At: West Newton

Running time: 96 minutes

Unrated (as PG: wartime violence, brief nudity)

In German, with subtitles

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