The Secret Hero (aka Süskind)

Netherlands (2012) Dir. Rudolf van den Berg

“I don’t want to be a hero, I want to be a husband”

Thus spoke Walter Süskind, a German-Jew not just caught between two worlds via his DNA but also through his actions. To some, he is a hero for saving the lives of over a thousand Jews, mostly children, from the Holocaust, to others he is seen as a traitor for befriending a Nazi officer to stay alive.

Holland 1942 and the Nazi occupation has seen the Jewish community being rounded up by the Gestapo and supposedly sent to labour camps. The Jewish Council of Amsterdam are aware of this, and have been given the job of selecting who goes, favouring the rich and “least expendable”. When businessman Süskind (Jeroen Spitzenberger) loses his job as a factory manager, he manages to score a new position as manager of the converted theatre where the selected Jews are to report for dispatch.

Upon seeing the amount of children torn from their families, him being father to a young daughter himself, Süskind develops a plan to help them escape and go into hiding, but with just adults being sent out means a shortfall in the total number going to camp, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Ferdinand aus der Funten (Karl Markovics) demands children make up the deficit. Süskind befriends Ferdinand to earn immunity and help the children at the same time.   

Films concerning the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities during World War II are never easy to watch and The Secret Hero is no exception. But they are also have the ability to be quite enlightening and educational in brining this shameful piece of history to life for us to understand, and in this instance, shining a light on unsung heroes like Süskind. As I said above however, not everyone is of this opinion.

Director Rudolf van den Berg does his best to be balanced with the portrayal of Süskind though the narrative does lean more towards the positive than the negative. Truth be told, one the film reaches its conclusion, it isn’t difficult to admire what he achieved and perhaps had a steeper hill to climb as a German-Jew. The awkward position his finds himself in means he is either a “Kraut” to the Dutch Jews, or filth to the Nazis.

In real life, Süskind moved his family to Holland en route to America because of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but as a businessman, also knew he could use his nationality to his advantage. This doesn’t mean he was sympathetic to the German cause, but unlike those at the JCA, he wasn’t prepared to sell his own people out either; conversely, by befriending Ferdinand, Süskind earned the same stay of execution as the council did, only with less arrogance about it.

Like most people, Süskind believed the Jews were simply being sent to labour camps but rumours were abound of something more sinister, which the Council would dismiss. Even Süskind’s wife Hanna (Nyncke Beekhuyzen) refused to believe it, yet at the same time would have preferred to have been able to flee to the US sooner. As you might expect, once the truth finally comes out, her tune changes and like her husband, she is prepared to do anything to save their lives and that of their daughter Yvonne (Golda de Leon).

At the theatre, Süskind is surrounded by likeminded Jewish people who help save the children, chief among them young nurse Fanny (Katja Herbers). Initially, they try daring schemes to get the children to safety, which involve burning their papers so they are not on the records, then smuggling babies out under coats or hidden in bags, but this is exposed by an officious Nazi worker in tragic circumstances.

Each time, Süskind has to pull out the stops to get Ferdinand onside to smooth over the damage, which has mixed success. Ferdinand is a weak man, lonely, prone to drinking, and currently depressed over his brother’s death. He is also slightly conflicted by the Nazi manifesto, insisting they are not barbarians, hence the concessions he affords Süskind, but his superior is a hardcore Nazi and wants results.

Just like every other film on this subject, this one succeeds in reminding us how horrific and inhumane the Nazi campaign against the Jews was. Whilst nothing graphic is shown, it is very in the air hovering over every scene like an ominous black cloud; it is in the cold dismissal of these people in the spiteful words of the Nazis; it permeates through shots of scared children and adults being huddled into a train carriage.

Very few moments of real terror or suspense are found – the kids almost being caught late in the film stands out – leaving van den Berg to rely on psychologically dragging the audience through the emotional wringer. At the same time, he injects a subtle shade of empathy regarding the internal conflict of Ferdinand to carry out his duty yet struggles to reconcile the extremity of the campaign with his own conscience.

Karl Markovics, experiencing the other side of the dispute having played a Jewish POW in The Counterfeiters, delivers another fascinating performance as Ferdinand, essaying his Nazi officiousness as a personality clash with his own nervousness and insecurities. In contrast, Jeroen Spitzenberger is almost a cool customer as Süskind, but he has more to hide and more to lose, which is similarly revealed as the film goes on.

Credit also needs to go to the younger cast, who presumably don’t know or understand the gravity and horror of the story they are depicting, but they rise to the occasion well enough, and provide the lost innocence that is at stake in this whole rotten scenario.

Süskind died in 1945 on a death march, a year after his wife and daughter were gassed. Sadly, no reference is made whether any of the children he saved are still alive or not. Nevertheless, thanks to The Secret Hero, Süskind’s efforts are no longer a secret.

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