- Movie Rating -

Das Boot ist voll (The Boat is Full) (1981)

| November 13, 1981

The Boat is Full is one of those films about a desperate situation in which you are invited to ask ‘Well, what would you do in this situation?’ and I suppose I don’t know.  I don’t know how I would react to Hitler’s expanding war machine.  I don’t know how I would have reacted to refugees in desperate need.  I don’t know how I would have reacted if I were one of those thousands of people trying to get out of the Third Reich’s line of sight.

Markus Imhoof’s film kept asking me that question.  Through a group of Swiss citizens safely living within the borders of Switzerland it is a question of immediacy.  You have it good for right now.  Your country is out of Hitler’s line of sight, but what happens when a group of desperate people come to your door?

The movie challenges the long-held notion of Swiss neutrality.  During World War II, both sides understood their non-involvement possibly for a myriad of reasons, possibly because Swiss banks promised an economic future after the war – money is always the safest border.  As a result, Switzerland remained safely out of the way of the bombs and the tanks and the concentration camps.  Much like The United States would in the early years, it patrolled its borders and had to deal with the rationing of food and supplies, but it stayed out of the way and didn’t take a side.

Imhoof’s film takes place in 1942 when Hitler’s racist war machine is really at its devastating peak.  A small group of Jewish refugees escape from a German train and seek shelter at an Inn that is just inside the Swiss border.  Among them is a woman looking for her husband; also, an old man, a pregnant woman, an orphan, and a German soldier who has deserted.  The couple who owns the Inn do not meet these people with warm smiles and hot food.  They know the world situation and through their reaction to these refugees the movie asks its moral questions.

For those seeking refuge, Switzerland seemed ideal.  Unfortunately, Switzerland didn’t take many refugees – possibly better to keep their neutrality intact.  The refugees who arrive at the Inn do meet the quota to be accepted but that doesn’t mean that it was required by law.  If someone shows up at your door and they meet the requirements, you are under no obligation to invite them in.

The Innkeeper’s wife wants to take them in largely to get out of the line of sight of nosy neighbors.  The Innkeeper himself is initially reluctant (reasonably) because taking them in means feeding them with food they simple do not have and also risking their own lives.  Soon word gets out.  The people in town know what is happening and a policeman is coming around to check things out.

The Innkeeper and his wife understand what it means for the refugees to be sent back but they also understand that the quota system offers them a slender lifeline.  That leads to the film’s most devastating scene in which the wife tries to arrange these people groups that might convincingly look like a family.  What if the soldier pretends to be married to the pregnant woman?  Could the child be their son?  Could the old man be their father?  Pulling away from the situation, we can see that it all seems so silly.  These are human beings, after all, just fighting for a chance to live another day and what they have to go through to get that chance is deplorable.

What makes the movie work is Imhoof’s refusal to go for easy emotional payoffs.  This is a situation that requires a cold, spare approach and in that way The Boat is Full is effective because it never tells us how to feel about this situation.  It is terrifying.  It is tense.  It is ridiculous.  But at the same time, this was life during Hitler’s reign.  We are never jerked around emotionally; the situation bodes enough emotion without leading us by the nose.  We know that, in the end, this is not going to have a rousing conclusion, or even a really satisfying one.  The point is to show us the difficulty and devastation of living under these circumstancing and asking what we would do if we were in their shoes.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized