A Swedish businessman turned diplomat saves thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. Based on a true story. [Dir: Kjell Grede/ Stellan Skarsgard, Katharina Thalbach, Karoly Eperjes/ 115 min/ Drama, Foreign Language/ Sweden, Germany, & Hungary/ In Swedish with English subtitles/ Democide]
The real Raoul Wallenberg saved an estimated one hundred thousand lives through a combination of bribes, massive counterfeiting of Swedish passports, and manipulation of the Nazi bureaucracy—successfully thwarting the biggest government death machine in history with nothing more than courage and paper. His story, as told here, begins in 1944.
Wallenberg was working for a large food-trading enterprise in Eastern Europe when he was asked by a relief group to assist in saving Hungarian Jews. He enthusiastically agreed to help. Subsequently, he was given diplomatic status by the Swedish government and was sent to Budapest with the express purpose of saving as many lives as possible. Well aware of the Nazi preoccupation with “papers,” he began printing up impressive looking Swedish passports that he gave out by the thousands to endangered Jews. He created safe houses for Jews by officially designating purchased residential dwellings as satellite properties of the Swedish embassy. He even pulled Jews from trains on their way to the death camps, claiming these otherwise doomed people as Swedish citizens. He did all this while under constant threat of Nazi assassination.
And most importantly, in the last days of the German occupation of Hungary, when orders had been given to exterminate the remaining seventy thousand Jewish prisoners, Wallenberg successfully intervened. He warned the German general in charge that he had already arranged for the general to be held personally responsible by the (soon-to-be-victorious) Allied forces should such a mass murder take place. As a result, the general cancelled the order and the Jews were saved.
These are tremendous acts of heroism that deserve a telling on the order of Schindler’s List. Unfortunately, this film isn’t it. Wallenberg is clever and brave, but apart from a few instances, you don’t see him actually saving many people; and even when he does, the scope of Wallenberg’s true achievement isn’t made clear. Apparently the audience is expected to know of Wallenberg’s good deeds in advance. Mostly what you see here is hopelessness, failure, and confusion, which says much more about the state of European cinema today than it does about Wallenberg.
Moreover, at the end, the film simply states that after being “mistakenly” arrested by Soviet occupying forces, Wallenberg was never released. Not mentioned at all is that Wallenberg spent years, perhaps decades, in the brutal Soviet prison system and that the Soviets repeatedly resisted appeals to release him. (The Russians now say that Wallenberg probably died in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison a decade after the war, but no one knows for sure. As late as 1987 he was sighted in a Soviet prison by two independent witnesses.) Nor is any moral outrage expressed that such a hero should be so treated. It’s curious that the film doesn’t go into that part of the story.
Nonetheless, if you’ve never heard of Wallenberg, this film is worth watching because it communicates at least some of his accomplishments. In artistic respects, it’s competently put together; but with a story like Wallenberg’s, it could and should have been so much more.