The Boat is Full (1980) 




Director:   Markus Imhoof. 

Starring:  Tina Engel (Judith Krueger), Hans Diehl (Hannes Krueger), Martin Walz (Olaf Landau), Curt Bois (Lazar Ostrowskij), Ilse Bahrs (Frau Ostrowskij), Gerd David (Karl Schneider), Simone (Gitty), Laurent (Maurice), Renate Steiger (Anna Flueckiger), Mathias Gndinger (Franz Flueckiger), Michael Gempart (Landjger Bigler), Klaus Steiger (Reverend Hochdorfer), Alice Bruengger (Frau Hochdorfer), Otto Dornbierer (Otti), Monika Koch (Rosemarie).

destruction of the myth of the Swiss "lifeboat" for the persecuted


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

World War II.  The Swiss are blocking up a railway tunnel.  A German train stops along the railway tracks in a corner of Switzerland.  A group of refugees come out of hiding in the locomotive to get off the train and head for freedom in Switzerland.  The group consists of four Jewish people, Judith Krueger, her teenage brother Olaf Landau, the elderly Lazar Ostrowskij, and his granddaughter Gitty, along with a young French boy and a German army deserter.   Mrs. Ostrowskij did not get off the train and is caught.  Her captor asks her if she prefers head first or feet first going into the locomotive's coal burner.  German soldiers start firing at the small group as it makes its way across a stream. 

The next morning a Swiss farm woman named Anna Flueckiger opens her barn door and finds the small group of refugees.  She takes them into her kitchen.  The young French boy has lice and Anna washes his head with soap and then vinegar.  She then prepares a breakfast for the group in spite of the fact of food rationing in Switzerland.  Anna learns that Judith's husband Hannes Krueger, a non-Jew, is in a Swiss prison and she has not seen him in two years.  The prisoners in Switzerland are being used to replace forest with potatoes. 

Anna's husband, the heavy Franz Flueckiger, discovers the group and becomes very angry.  He starts to chase the group away from his house.  He even has the police called.  The police say that the refugees should go to the police station.  As he chases Judith and her brother, he suddenly comes face to face with Judith and suddenly has a change of heart.  The big bear turns into a teddy bear. 

Anna visits the village reverend who tells her that he knows of some groups of refugees who were able to be accepted as refugees in Switzerland by uniting to pretend to be a family.  Refugee families with a child under six are eligible for acceptance into Switzerland.  Judith learns that she might be able to speak to her husband by telephone.  (One of the prison guards helps her husband escape from his work crew and he rides a bike in search of Judith.)

Police officer Bigler arrives to examine the refugees.  He stresses that all illegal refugees have to be sent back (to Germany in this case).  There are some exceptions:  deserting German soldiers; political refugees; children without parents; and children under six years of age.  When he examines the refugees, they tell him that they are a family.  The German army deserter is the father, Judith is the mother, Ostrowskij is the grandfather, and the young girl and the French boy are their children.  Judith's brother now in the German army uniform pretends to be the deserter.  Bigler is somewhat skeptical about the true nature of this so-called family. 

The scheme unravels when Bigler finds out that Olaf is not a German army deserter.  The actual German soldier admits that he is the true soldier.  Bigler says to Anna that "You went too far."  Then Bigler puts the German deserter and Olaf onto the back of a truck and handcuffs them there.  Judith wants to get on the truck with her brother and tries her best to accomplish this, but Bigler stops her.  The decision has been made that Judith and the other three will be taken to the border and turned over to the Germans.  

Judith, Gitty and her grandfather, and the young French boy start walking while Bigler rides his bike.  Franz wants to save the four refugees and he has an argument with his wife because she fears he is doing this because he has taken a fancy to Judith.  Franz takes his motorbike with sidecar and catches up with the slow walking group.  He tells Bigler that he will drive the refugees to the border for him and meet him later.  In all there are five people, two in the sidecar and three on the motorbike. 

Unfortunately, Franz runs into a Swiss cavalry unit on horseback and they stop him.  They arrest Franz and place him in prison.  The four refugees are placed temporarily in a prison cell.  Judith's husband is caught and brought to the prison.  Judith and Hannes are able to unite for a very short while, before they are forcefully separated by the guards.  Judith and her group are driven to the border.  Two officials decide to take the young French boy with them because they know there is room for one in the Free-Place Campaign.  Swiss soldiers walk the remaining three (Judith, Gitty and her grandfather) across the bridge to the German side. 

Judith and Gitty were gassed at the concentration camp Treblinka.  Mr. Ostrowskij did not survive deportation.  Olaf was deported and just disappeared.  Franz Fluckiger received a Swiss prison sentence for helping the refugees.  The estimates of the number of refugees in Switzerland that were sent back range from 10,000 to 24,000 people.  These figures have helped explode the myth of the "lifeboat Switzerland". 



Good movie.  It explodes the myth of the good, kind Switzerland that helped all the refugees the best they could.  This is good to know, but Switzerland just joins the myriad number of countries, including the United States, which performed poorly in rescuing the Jewish people in Europe from genocide.  Undoubtedly Switzerland was worried about what Nazi Germany might do to them if they harbored every refugee that came across its borders, but no doubt there were other reasons, some of them not so flattering, that played a role in sending so many refugees back, many of them to certain death. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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