There is a sequence in the middle of Across the Waters, a new Holocaust drama from Denmark, which is deeply suspenseful and unsettling.
Until this point, we have been following the Itkin family: jazz musician Arne (played by David Dencik), his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic), and their six-year-old son Jakob.
Fleeing the sudden arrival of Nazi troops in Copenhagen, the Itkins are not far from the shores of Gilleleje, Denmark, a coastal town with residents they hope can provide for them a safe passage to Sweden.
Before this harrowing sequence, the family has heard news of choppy waters, which means there will be no sailing in the evening. So, they have gone to the woods, hoping the foliage and trees can shelter them for the night.
A few voices call out from the darkness, explaining that they will help. As several Danish Jews move toward the voices, Miriam hesitates.
In this scene, director Nicolo Donato uses mostly natural light: we cannot see very far into the darkness and have no idea where the characters are going.
So, when a flashlight shines on an SS officer, and Miriam runs away, we are left with a jagged, disorienting perspective. She is, literally and visually, a woman stuck in the middle of darkness, and there is no light to guide her.
These moments of harsh, palpable emptiness make Across the Waters an intense experience. Donato’s decision to shoot mostly with natural light creates a texture of realism but also disorientation. Moviegoers have come to expect clarity in the lighting and camerawork; however, the dimness and shadows provide an experience that makes one hold their breath with anxious anticipation.
Across the Waters is a very good choice to launch the 14th season of the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation’s Chai Tea Film Series on Sunday Oct. 22.
The drama was not just inspired by true events, but has been a passion project for its director. Donato’s grandfather was Niels Børge Lund Ferdinansen, one of the fishermen from Gilleleje, Denmark who helped to save the lives of thousands of Jews in 1943. In the film, actor Jakob Cedergren plays Ferdinansen.
Across the Waters, while concentrated mostly on the Itkins, does expand its narrative to include several of the townspeople who decided to assist with the rescue effort.
In an early scene, a few seaside residents discuss what they will charge the Jews hoping to escape. A few explain that given the risk to their own lives, they would require $1,500 per person. Others are more humane and courageously assert that it would be irresponsible to turn away those unable to pay that fee.
These debates, although a brief portion of the film, remind one of the treacherous journey that refugees face around the world today,where the cost to travel via boat is often thousands of dollars.
Donato and co-writer Per Daumiller spotlight the intricacies of these life-and-death situations. For the first half of the film, the Jewish characters we encounter hoping to flee for Sweden are counting their dollars and trying to sell off precious valuables to pay for the voyage. These sacrifices add urgency to the drama.
At the same time, one may expect deeper characterization. We learn very little about Miriam and several of the Danish heroes, including some that were initially reluctant to aid the Jewish citizens. Even Ferdinansen, who receives a touching tribute at the film’s end, is a rather flat character.
Meanwhile, there are too many close calls for the Itkins, who come dangerously close to death or capture on a few occasions.
Nevertheless, with such high stakes, this drama of survival is tense and engaging. Some of the details around the residence effort, which included the compassion of local pastors and the Copenhagen bishop, should also prompt moviegoers to learn more about those who spearheaded this little-known rescue operation.
Across the Waters plays as a part of the Chai Tea Film Series on Sunday, Oct. 22, at 1p.m. and 4p.m at the Empress Walk cinemas in Toronto. Tickets can be purchased at TJFF.com.