Films

Voyage of the damned

A Canadian documentary cracks the mystery of who sank the Struma

Brian D. Johnson November 19 2001
Films

Voyage of the damned

A Canadian documentary cracks the mystery of who sank the Struma

Brian D. Johnson November 19 2001

Voyage of the damned

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

A Canadian documentary cracks the mystery of who sank the Struma

Now we call it collateral damage— a term that implies the slaughter of civilians is just an unfortunate side-effect in the necessary business of war. But killing innocent people is no more an accident of war than killing catde is an accident of ranching. Who lives and who dies is often cruelly arbitrary, a lesson borne out by the Sept. 11 attack, and by the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.

In remembrance, and retaliation, we try to dignify war with a sense of moral order. But through the long lens of history, a more barbaric picture emerges, one of civilians sacrificed on the altar of power politics. At least that’s the legacy that comes to light in The Struma, a powerful new documentary from Canadian director Simcha Jacobovici.

During the Second World War, nearly 800 Romanian Jews were packed onto a ship named the Struma. They thought they were the lucky ones. Fleeing the Ffolocaust, they had paid handsomely for the privilege of being refugees. Their decrepit, 46-m boat was bound for Palestine, but its engines failed near Istanbul. Turkey, bowing to pressure from Britain, denied sanctuary. And after 71 days of stalemate, the Struma was towed to open water where it was left to drift. On Feb. 24, 1942, it was sunk by a single torpedo from a Soviet submarine. All but one of the 770 passengers and crew perished in the frigid waters of the Black Sea.

This week, the ship’s sole survivor, David Stoliar, is the guest of honour at a gala benefit screening of The Struma in Toronto. (Other charity screenings will follow in Vancouver on Nov. 25 and in Montreal on April 18.) The film weaves the story of the tragedy with a groundbreaking investigation into the politics that sank the ship, and a contemporary tale of a British diver’s frustrating quest to find the wreck that marks his grandparents’ grave. Stoliar’s vivid memories of the sinking—he was 19 at the

time—play a rivetting part in the documentary. Now 79, he will see the film for the first time at Toronto’s 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre.

“It’s miraculous that the screening is taking place,” says Jacobovici. “Usually, it’s

hard to get 100 people into a room to watch a documentary. And by any normal accounting, David Stoliar shouldn’t be there. The torpedo should have killed him, or he should have drowned, or he should have died of hypothermia.” But it was also thanks to a fluke of history that Jacobovici, the son of Holocaust survivors, was around to make the film. His father, Joseph Jacobovici, was among a group of Romanian Jews who were rounded up and shot by Nazis during the war. “He was left for dead in the police courtyard,” explains Simcha, 48. “When the womenfolk came to bury their dead, some people wiggled around, and my father was one of them. He was sewn up in a friends kitchen. The bullet passed through his chest when his heart was in contraction. Had it been in expansion, I wouldn’t be here to make this film.”

Joseph, who died five years ago, survived the Nazis only to become a target of the Communists. He escaped Romania in 1947 in a boat called the Pan Crescent, a refugee vessel much like the Struma. Sailing for Palestine, it was diverted by the British navy to Cyprus, where its passengers were forced to join about 50,000 Holocaust survivors in barbed-wire camps. The Pan Crescent, in fact, helped inspire Exodus, the famous novel by Leon Uris.

Although his father’s saga could warrant its own film, Jacobovici makes it just a poignant grace note in The Struma. The story focuses on Stoliar, and on a diving expedition led by Greg Buxton, a British computer programmer whose grandparents went down with the vessel. Buxton is determined to attach a memorial plaque to the wreck, and the director joins him in a suspenseful search beset by a number of obstacles, including the Turkish coast guard. Jacobovici also unearths conclusive evidence that solves the mystery of the sinking. Digging through Soviet records, he proves the torpedo came from a Soviet, not a German, submarine—he even finds archival footage of the sub operating in the Black Sea. To block the Turkish-German trade in chromium, the Soviet Union had a policy of sinking all neutral ships in the Bosporus strait. Jacobovici also explores the possibility that agents from Britain’s MI-6 sabotaged the Struma’s engines to prevent it from reaching Palestine.

In the end, however, Stoliar s story—the sole survivor clinging to a piece of wood in an icy sea—is the most compelling. “For 58 years, no one asked me about the Struma,” says Stoliar, a retired oil-company executive now living in Oregon, “and I felt that no one cared. I carried the memories in my head as if it happened yesterday.” Now, at least, he is not alone. HI

A fairy tale of gay Paree

An impish guardian angel patrols the City of Light

Amélie

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

European films that travel well to North America—from Cinema Paradiso to Life Is Beautiful—tend to be whimsical fables distributed by Miramax. And this year’s designated Euro-hit is no exception. Amélie, a romantic comedy, is the kind of mille-feuille confection that offers a taste of France for those afraid to fly. Directed with postmodern panache by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen), it unfolds as a kaleidoscopic postcard of contemporary Paris. But it feels like a nostalgia trip through a city that no longer exists, a funhouse of garret painters and quaint eccentrics where romantic possibility awaits in every corner café. The camera glides down cobbled streets and Métro stairways with the same accordion rhythms that swoon through the sound track. This is a French movie that wishes life were a French movie.

The action follows the adventures of Amélie, a cartoon-cute gamine played with feline charm by Audrey Tautou. Like a mad pastry chef, Jeunet concocts Amélie’s childhood as a whiz-bang montage—from her suicidal goldfish leaping out of its bowl to her nai ve visions of vinyl LPs being manufactured like crêpes. Amélie grows up to be a waitress in Montmartre, but doesn’t grow out of her imagination. Her story is set against the backdrop of the Princess of Wales’s death. As the media canonize Di, Amélie becomes a self-styled saint of a different order, unblond and anonymous. She discovers a 40-

year-old biscuit tin of childhood treasures in her apartment, tracks down its owner and covertly returns it. She plays matchmaker for two lonely hearts in the café where she works. And as a guardian angel with a streak of mischief, she also dispenses prankish justice, taking revenge on her unloving father by stealing his cherished garden gnome—then mailing him pictures of it posed beside foreign landmarks.

But Amélie’s ultimate mission is to stagemanage her own romantic destiny. Secretly, she stalks an enigmatic young man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) who collects torn and discarded snapshots that he salvages from a photo machine at a train station. The movie is full of benign collectors and fetishists. Amélie’s own guardian angel is the Man of Glass, an elderly neighbour with brittle bones who paints Renoir forgeries and watches the world through binoculars.

Amélie is the kind of woman only a male director could imagine: a childlike voyeur who falls for a nerd, yet plays the impassive objet for the camera-as-voyeur. She’s like the cute daydreamer in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, who routinely sneaks into a strange man’s apartment and cleans it. Shooting in 80 Paris locations, Jeunet did his own finicky housekeeping—scrubbing away the graffiti. But compared with the theme-park fantasia of Chocolat or Moulin Rouge, Amélie at least feels authentically faux. And although it’s too long for a film so slight, it transports us to a Paris that’s as irresistible as it is unreal.

Brian D. Johnson