'Complicit': Montreal Review

Courtesy of The World Film Festival Montreal
Amateur doc gathers testimony from survivors of a troubling episode

The ship full of WWII refugees that America wouldn't help

MONTREAL – A shameful piece of WWII history is recounted firsthand in Michael Ivan Schwartz's Complicit, the tale of an ocean liner full of Jewish refugees that made its way to Cuba, then to the U.S., only to be rejected by both governments. Billed as "the untold story" of the SS St. Louis, it is hardly that: Previous accounts include the 1974 book Voyage of the Damned and a star-studded 1976 Hollywood adaptation. But the film seeks to dig deeper into the U.S.' failure to act on this case; while there's vast room for improvement in the doc's presentation of its arguments, it could be useful in classroom settings.

Using interviews with survivors who were children on that cruise, the film reminds viewers of Kristallnacht's horrors and explains Hitler's propaganda scheme to send Jews away to other countries he knew wouldn't take them in. In the case of the St. Louis, a sympathetic ship captain ensured that his passengers would be treated like any paying customer; interviewees recall that "life was good" on board, with plenty of fun for kids. Then came Cuba, where a bureaucratic shuffle meant only a few passengers were allowed to disembark.

Lingering off the coast of Miami, within view of palm trees and hotels, over 900 passengers prayed for the U.S. to give them refugee status. To explain how this failed to happen (the ship went back to Europe, where nearly a third died in Nazi camps), the film focuses on a play that imagines a trial of F.D.R. in which the prosecutor is Oliver Wendell Holmes and the defense attorney is John F. Kennedy. Non-actors read the script of this amateurish drama, whose factual building blocks would be better presented in many other formats. But many viewers will encounter facts that are new to them here.

The doc makes little pretense of being a real movie for its second half, instead serving just as a record of a 2012 State Department ceremony that honored the ship's survivors and made a public apology for the government's cowardice. "We were wrong," says Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who promises that in the future "we will have learned the lessons ... " of letting craven political calculations interfere with humanitarian aid.

Tell that to the thousands of kids in U.S. detention centers, waiting to be shipped back to gangs in Central America.

Production company: SS St. Louis Legacy Project Foundation, Loud Communications

Director-Director of photography-Editor-Music: Michael Ivan Schwartz

Screenwriter: Robert M. Krakow

No rating, 60 minutes