17 June 2005 | Cantoris-2
A beautiful glimpse into the tragedy of WWII
This film has so captivated me that I have read the original novel, "Daddy", by Loup Durand. Although it shares with the film most of the supposed plot holes pointed out by others, it has been acclaimed by readers familiar with the genre on both sides of the Atlantic.
While I know few details of the esoteric intricacies of Swiss bank accounts, history records that the children and other heirs of many Jews put to death in the holocaust were often unable to recover the funds their ancestors had deposited there, because they could not produce the necessary death certificates. Thomas's great grandfather (grandfather in the film), a banker, had devised a labyrinthine scheme to circumvent these routine requirements so that funds could be released to anyone who presented the proper credentials and codes under the designated circumstances. It was very secret, involving international arrangements and surrounded with such safeguards that the Nazis had never managed to crack the system open to their benefit, despite many attempts.
Hence the need for Thomas to appear in person and to verify mutually (through secret codes committed to everyone's memory) the identity of everybody-- including several bank officials-- present simultaneously during his recitation. Its power could not be transferred to any single individual by telephone or in writing. In other parts of the book, Durand reveals enough knowledge of the often shameful record of global high finance during World War II that I can credit the plausibility of this premise, given the absence of objections from knowledgeable readers during all this time.
There are many differences between the film and the book. I am impressed by how, at least for the cinematic environment, many of these differences are actually improvements. The story has been not merely simplified of necessity, but tightened up. For instance, in the book Laemmle was just a brilliant but jaded, world-weary professor with suicidal thoughts, who had been pursuing "the Von Gall case" for years mainly to avoid being literally bored to death. But in the movie he was Maria's former teacher and would-be lover, with whom he had played so many expert chess games that he could recognize her distinctive style anywhere. This experience gives him a crucial clue in the film.
Catherine Lamiel has a much larger role than in the book. And whereas the time span of the novel is about a year (by the time it ends, the war is winding down), in the film it has been compressed into a couple of weeks-- befitting the urgency of the secret that Thomas carries. The principal characters and their conflicts, however-- both among one another and within themselves-- are remarkably intact.
With all due respect to the novel, a film faithful to it would need to resemble Indiana Jones. I do not admire the Indiana Jones movies and feel that their influence on American film-making is baneful. What we get here is subtler, more atmospheric, coherent, and I for one think more believable. It is also earnest: one critic said that it is reminiscent of a film of the 60s or even earlier, especially in the acting of Ms. Mezzogiorno and Mr. Moyer. Whether you will like this film depends on whether you like that. Well, I guess I do.
Finally, one must mention the unfortunate (if less than obvious) fact that we in what the powers-that-be have defined as "Region 1" are being treated in this product to only 2/3 of the original miniseries. I daresay the cutting has been about as well done as it can be. Nevertheless, under such conditions, anyone is forgiven for perceiving plot holes and puzzlements. The full original is available only elsewhere, or to North Americans who have taken the step of acquiring a "region-free" DVD player and then patronizing a vendor overseas for a more obscure offering. I would recommend all lovers of freedom to do at least the former-- it's not particularly expensive, not yet anyway-- and meanwhile to reserve judgment on any production seen only as mutilated by third parties.
A bit of trivia: Laemmle cites Bossuet (in the full version explaining that he was "the Sun King's favorite preacher") for a view that he apparently shared, that "childhood is the most vile, abject form of human nature." Indeed, a web search turns up an aphorism of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet's: "L'enfance est la vie d'une bete" (Childhood is the life of an animal).