Across The Waters (Fuglene over sundet)

Denmark (2016) Dir. Nicolo Donato

How many more times must people be told – “Don’t Trust Anyone” before they start listening? This was never a more vital aphorism than during World War II where even those who seem altruistic and helpful were in fact looking to exploit all situations for their own benefit and survival.

Because of their coalition agreement with Germany, Denmark was left alone by the Nazis during their occupation until October 1943 when the arrangement fell apart, and Hitler ordered the removal of all Jewish Danes. At first, many refused to believe it was true until the Nazis began raiding every province, forcing a mass exodus to safety by the Jewish community.

Jazz guitarist Arne Itkin (David Dencik), his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and 6 year-old son Jakob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) are among those looking to flee to Sweden where Miriam’s parents reside. Early attempts at leaving are unsuccessful as Nazi soldiers block every path, eventually finding help from an underground resistance group transporting refugees to the fishing village of Gilleleje.

Nicolo Donato can afford to pronounce Across The Waters to be “inspired by real events” without recourse – the story is based on the actions of his grandfather and other Danish fishermen who helped many Jews evade Nazi capture in 1943! This makes this film a personal tribute to a family and national hero yet Donato modestly puts the spotlight on the plight of Arne and the other Jews.

Donato’s grandfather Niels Børge (NB) Lund Ferdinansen, played by Jakob Cedergren, was the unofficial leader of the skippers running the transportation, and helped over 7,000 Jews to Sweden and to safety, roughly 95% of those under threat by the Nazis. He wasn’t alone – local priest Pastor Kjeldgaard (Lars Brygmann) is able to ensure some protection through the church’s impunity from Nazi jurisdiction until the Danish police was relieved of its authority.  

This is yet to come however, before then the peaceful existence of the Danish Jews is to be summarily interrupted by Hitler’s petty reaction to the collapse of the agreement with Denmark. The raids on known Jewish communities begins swiftly yet it isn’t long before word spreads. Arne was one of those early doubters, believing in the Danish government but was soon to change his mind once the Nazis descended on his home.

Grabbing what they could, the family make their way to the borders but Jakob falling ill incurs a temporary visit to a GP who puts them in touch with a driver willing to risk helping fleeing Jews. Unfortunately, an argument over lack of funds and the untimely arrival of German officers puts the kibosh on this and the family seek alternate methods, learning of the help network in Gilleleje.

Whilst this cadre of fishermen are well meaning in their efforts, they do ask for a small reward given the risk they are taking, though this isn’t binding if the person has nothing to offer. Unfortunately, NB’s brother-in-law Kaj (Nicolas Bro) is greedy, rejecting anyone who can’t pay, including the Levy family who befriend the Itkins, at least until Emmet (Mads Riisom) tries to steal Arne’s wallet.

As the story progresses, the issue of trust is as destructive to the fugitive Jews as Nazi persecution. With the Danish police retaining their authority over their towns by German agreement, some Danes have opted to side with them and become de facto Gestapo, exposed when they deceive the Jews arriving in Gilleleje into thinking they are being taken to safe houses, then arrest them up.

Fortunately, some were able to get away, though Arne and Jakob become separated from Miriam, who meets up with Julie Levy (Marijana Jankovic) and her daughter, finding Emmet has drowned. This becomes a recurring theme as circumstance sees the Itkins split up and reunited a couple of times, but never due to their own doing. The Nazis take over full control of the law and rescind all impunity to the church and anywhere else, as their campaign increases in intensity.

Credit to Donato, even with this repetition of set ups, he manages to make each scenario horribly tense and gnarly in the sense of dread he creates from them. Clearly working to a tight budget, everything is achieved through the camera, lighting, and performances, this simplicity working in its favour in drawing the audience into the moment. Another boon is the absence of a musical score to direct the mood, the silence and the laboured breaths of the panicked cast does more than any melodic motif can.

Quite a lot of ground is covered in this film but at just 90-minutes, there is little room to flesh out the characters as much as they deserve. This puts our sympathy for the Jews on a fairly superficial level though again Donato is relying on our knowledge of history to feel for them automatically.

The theme of the film is the solidarity of the Danish people against the Nazis, refusing to be party to their actions. Instead of dwelling on the Nazis as the main antagonists, which is taken as read, the attention shifts to the likes of Kaj, thinking of nobody but himself and getting as much out of the other’s misfortune as he can. It’s a suitably disagreeable from Nicolas Bro, culminating in a heartbreaking scene opposite his real-life sister Laura playing his on screen sister.

He may get top billing but David Dencik tends to slip into the background more than he should as the nominal lead, giving Danica Curcic the spotlight to share with humane and empathetic support from Lars Brygmann and of course, Jakob Cedergren. The recreation of the period is flawless as ever, making the cold of the water, the dirt of the ground, and the confinement of the hiding spaces palpably realistic and tangible.

Ultimately, a tidy and well-made effort, Across The Waters gives credit to widely unsung heroes, letting them take a posthumous bow for their part in averting further Nazi atrocities.