Walter Süskind, the hero of this dramatized version of his life, was a German Jewish businessman who escaped to Amsterdam in 1938 and became trapped there when the Nazis marched in. In 1942, the Jewish Council of Amsterdam put him in charge of the Dutch Theater, which was being used as a holding pen for Dutch Jews as they were rounded up and deported to Westerbrok transit camp, and then — although few know it — on to their deaths. His terrible orders were to make sure the “operation” went as smoothly and quietly as possible.
The white armband Süskind wore as a council member saved him, his wife and their young daughter from immediate transport — and marked him as a collaborator to many. But even as he funneled tens of thousands of his fellow Jews to the gas chambers, he used his position to save nearly 1,000 infants and children, spiriting them away to safe houses in the Dutch countryside.
Traitor or hero? That was the agonizing question put to every Judenrate, the Jewish councils set up in German-occupied lands ostensibly to manage social services for the local Jews but really to aid in their roundup and deportation.
Do you help the Nazis if you can save even a handful of Jews? Or must you refuse to work with them at any cost? These questions and others are raised in the Dutch film “Süskind.”
If this weren’t a true story, the film might be dismissed as unbelievable and overly sentimental. But in fact Süskind and his helpers from the Dutch resistance did sneak out children right under the eyes of the Nazis. And yes, the real Süskind did pretend to befriend the bitter and lonely Nazi officer in charge of the deportations, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Ferdinand aus der Funten, passing him cigars and brandy, all to prolong the inevitable just a little bit longer. And yes, in late 1944 when his wife and daughter were deported to Auschwitz, the real Süskind chose to go with them, knowing it would be their last ride together.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch, knowing the history of the Holocaust and of Süskind himself. Watching the self-satisfied men of the council saving their own skins and refusing to believe stories of the gas chambers to which they were sending their fellow Jews, the viewer is tempted to scream out to the men and women lining up politely at the train station, Stop! Run! A toddler drops his teddy bear. A mother screams as she’s torn away from her children. Sure, we’ve seen these scenes in countless Holocaust movies. But they never fail to tear at our souls.
Given the constraints of working with a true story, the director, screenwriters and actors managed to turn out a compelling film. Oddly, and somewhat disappointingly, the most interesting character in the film is aus der Funten, probably because his inner conflicts are most clearly expressed.
Süskind’s face, by contrast, is most often a mask — we imagine what he must have felt when forced to decide, for example, between putting 13 orphans on the next transport or replacing them with the 13-member Jewish orchestra, brilliant musicians all. Did that really happen? It must have, if not to Süskind, then to someone else.
Director Rudolf van den Berg, who also co-wrote the screenplay, might have done well to emulate Steven Spielberg, who ended his remarkable film “Schindler’s List” with a shot of the real-life survivors dancing toward the camera in a field in Israel. Surely some of the children saved by Süskind are still alive. Where are they now? What do they look like? That would have been a powerful, more uplifting ending to this real-life tearjerker.
“Süskind” screens at 7:30 p.m. March 14 at the CinéArts in Pleasant Hill. In Dutch with English subtitles. (Not rated, 118 minutes)