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A stylish wartime thriller

December 10, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 60 years have passed since the end of World War II, yet "The Aryan Couple" demonstrates that, although the events of the Holocaust have been exhaustively documented, they can still serve as a background for acute suspense. In a seamless blend of fact and fiction, this handsome film is a splendid, stirring feat of the imagination in which a gifted, well-chosen cast headed by Martin Landau and Judy Parfitt have been matched by John Daly's astute direction and by Daly and Kendrew Lascelles' script, which is at once a clever feat of adroit dramatic construction, succinct characterization and an appreciation of the resilience of the human spirit.

In an unnamed city in Hungary, 1944, Landau's Josef Krauzenberg is quietly drawing upon his formidable resources of courage and dignity, on the most difficult day of his life. A steel magnate, he first bids goodbye to his devoted office staff, a fraction of his more than 3,000 employees. In the evening, he and his elegant wife, Rachel (Parfitt), will leave their townhouse for their country palace, which houses their renowned art collection. They will be entertaining at dinner none other than Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler (Danny Webb), who has in hand documents for them to sign, which state that in return for all their holdings the Krauzenbergs and their 30 relatives will be given safe passage to Palestine via Switzerland.

That such a transaction could even be contemplated was due to the Europa Plan, devised by activists in Slovakia's Jewish Center, by which Slovakian Jews could be saved from deportation and extermination by ransom. The group also tried with little success to export the plan to other European countries, including Hungary.

After months of negotiations and wrangling with the Germans, Josef Krauzenberg fully realizes how risky the deal he struck with the Germans is for him and his relatives. For that matter, so does Himmler, who has arrived without advance notice to Adolf Eichmann (Steve Mackintosh), a fanatic anti-Semite and chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo, because he fears Eichmann will betray the Krauzenbergs, whose relatives he has already rounded up. Himmler understands that because of the stature of Krauzenberg and his steelworks, such treachery would not be in the best interests of the Third Reich. Himmler doesn't subject the Krauzenbergs to Eichmann at their dinner table but allows him to join them for coffee afterward. It boggles the mind to witness the cultured and sophisticated Krauzenbergs being forced to entertain not one but two of history's greatest monsters.

They are, however, not entirely alone. Their last remaining servants, "The Aryan Couple," are a young German husband and wife, Hans (Kenny Doughty) and Ingrid Vassman (Caroline Carver), and the relationship between the Krauzenbergs, who are childless, and the Vassmans is one of deep mutual respect and affection. Yet the question of what is to happen to the Vassmans in the wake of their employers' scheduled departure doubles the film's suspense quotient.

In Landau's Krauzenberg, loosely based on the Hungarian Jewish industrialist Manfred Weiss, a gentle manner hides firm resolve while Parfitt's Rachel has an aristocratic manner and an acerbic bitterness that borders on dangerousness, given the circumstances. On the surface the Vassmans seem uncomplicated and obedient, but appearances prove deceptive. In Webb's Himmler a veneer of gentlemanliness could scarcely be thinner, and although not on his best day was the real Eichmann ever as good-looking as Mackintosh, the actor has a blandness of appearance and manner that makes this historic epitome of evil all the more chilling. As a brutal Eichmann aide, Christopher Fulford heads a fine supporting cast.

Engrossing and satisfying, "The Aryan Couple" shows just how vital a movie made in the solid British style of traditional filmmaking can be.


'The Aryan Couple'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and thematic elements

Times guidelines: Too intense for children

Martin Landau...Josef Krauzenberg

Judy Parfitt...Rachel Krauzenberg

Kenny Doughty...Hans Vassman

Caroline Carver...Ingrid Vassman

Danny Webb...Heinrich Himmler

An RS Entertainment release of a Film and Music Entertainment presentation. Producer--director John Daly. Executive producers Ilya Golubovich, Arkadiy Golubovich. Screenplay Daly, Kendrew Lascelles. Cinematographer Sergei Kozlov. Editor Matthew Booth. Costumes Jagna Janicka. Production designer Andrzej Halinski. Art director Art director Joanna Doroskiewicz, Set decorator Wieslawa Chojkowska. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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