Film festival opens up with a riveting tale of survival

Marga Spiegel’s memoir of evading the Holocaust among a family of German farmers, as adapted with grace and power by Dutch director Ludi Boeken, is only partly a Jewish story. At its core, “Saviors in the Night” is a saga of life during wartime, and ordinary people buffeted by shifting and conflicting loyalties and emotions.

The war leaves no one untouched, including the earthy non-Jewish family that takes in Marga and her young daughter. Instead of getting a simplistic moral fable of good Germans standing up to bad Germans, we are treated to a deeply humanistic albeit unsentimental portrait of people forced to confront and move beyond their differences and prejudices.

“Saviors in the Night” opens this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, with subsequent showings in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Rafael. Scheduled to attend opening night are director Boeken, actors Lia Hoensbroech and Daniel Flieger and the now 98-year-old Spiegel, upon whose 1969 bestseller “Unter Bauern: Retter in der Nacht” the film is based.

Marga’s husband, Menne, is a good German — a hero of World War I — who turns to a fellow veteran for help when the last Jews of Westphalia are being deported in 1943. Heinrich Aschoff unhesitatingly agrees to take in Marga and Karin on some pretext, despite his wife’s legitimate concern for her family’s safety if they are discovered. The very same day, the Aschoffs’ oldest son leaves to join the army, an act of patriotism and not anti-Semitism.

It is not religion or politics but class that colors the initial interactions between the Aschoffs and their “guests.”  Marga is a city person, used to finery and privacy. Although she hastens to do her share of the farm work, she still provokes the envy and resentment of Frau Aschoff.

The Aschoffs’ teenage daughter, Anni (Hoensbroech), meanwhile, is attracted to Marga’s sense of style. Anni comes to view Marga as a city-wise older sister, until the rocky day she discovers that Marga is Jewish. Needless to say, this is a turning point in their relationship and the film.

Heinrich and Frau Aschoff are careful to protect Marga and Karin’s identity, naturally, for there are true believers who accept the line that the Jews are responsible for Germany’s ills and must be eliminated. Alongside that ever-present danger, “Saviors in the Night” depicts a rural community where families have known and trusted each other for so long that direct experience trumps ideological cant.

This national split personality even manifests itself in the same household. A dimwitted, enthusiastic Hitler Youth enrollee (Flieger) lives next door to the Aschoffs with his father, who’s disgusted with his son for succumbing to the Nazi mob mentality.

For his part, the gregarious Menne has found a haven not far from Marga. It’s a form of solitary confinement, though, that exacts its own price.

The engrossing 100-minute film, in German with English subtitles, reminds us that pragmatism is the guiding ethos of wartime, and preconceived ideas and philosophies are a luxury nobody can afford. Heinrich Aschoff made the decision to hide Marga and Karin Spiegel, but the Aschoff women had to abide by it every day.

And it’s in the day-to-day bravery of such everyday folks that we find inspiration.

“Saviors in the Night” screens at 7 p.m. July 24 at the Castro Theatre; 6:45 p.m. Sat., July 31 at the CineArts @ Palo Alto Square; 7 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley; and 6:15 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Community, visit www.mcjc.org.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.