Writer and Director: Ben Cookson
With the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2020, cultural responses to the treatment of Jewish men, women and children during the Second World War are coming thick and fast. Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt opened last week to positive reviews while Václav Marhoul’s horrifying three-hour drama about the brutalisation of a young Jewish boy receives a general release in late March. First, something a little lighter as Michael Morpurgo’s story for young adults, Waiting for Anya, makes it to the screen adapted and directed by Ben Cookson.
On the mountainous border between France and Spain in the unoccupied zone, a young shepherd Jo is torn between family duty and community ties when he meets stranger Benjamin in the woods. Soon Jo discovers that Benjamin and local woman Horcada are helping fellow Jews to escape to Spain, but when the German army comes to monitor the town, imposing restrictions on food and movement, only Jo can help to keep the orphaned children safe.
It is hard to imagine a less menacing film about the impact of the Holocaust than Waiting for Anya, which largely avoids any graphic scenes of violence, bigotry or desperation despite the intense danger of the scenario. With a screenplay by Cookson, there is a pleasing humanity to the representation of all sides, with even the German soldiers presented as complex personalities who can express as much respect and rationality as threat in the conduct of their duties that largely places them in towns where they had no racial grievances. Building on the cosiness of British period films, this may be the gentlest Holocaust film you ever see.
The result however is that the story lacks jeopardy and even when poor Jo has his shopping examined by a German officer, or when the baddie Leutnant conducts a village-wide search for contraband there is never any danger that the sweet hidden children will be found or horribly murdered, while Cookson seems remarkably shy about troubling his characters with either the unacceptable language of Antisemitism which would have been widespread in this era or the darker consequences of collaboration and collusion between French citizens and the German army.
Cookson clearly has an eye for beautiful scenery, and the naturally rugged beauty of the landscape exudes from Gerry Vasbenter’s cinematography capturing both the remote location from the day-to-day business of war as well as the changing seasons as occupiers and their semi-conquered subjects come to an easy co-existence over several years. And telling the film from the perspective of adolescent Jo gives it a wider family film appeal but makes far less sense of the title with Jo never having met Benjamin’s daughter Anya and cannot possibly be waiting for her.
With a curious mix of accents, famous faces Anjelica Huston and Jean Reno run the gamut of worried expressions but both Thomas Kretschmann as the kindly Korporal and Tómas Lemarquis as the sort-of-evil but mostly reasonable Leutnant are both very good in a more nuanced presentation of German officers than often seen. Frederick Schmidt as Benjamin adds gravitas while Noah Schnapp as the shepherd is all eager enthusiasm and Boy’s Own integrity which suits the film well.
Waiting for Anya just isn’t sure what to focus on and in providing so much context on village life, Jo’s family situation, ancient love affairs revived, German occupation and the plight of orphaned Jewish children, the film loses its way and its message in the quest of a happy-ish ending. Enjoyable perhaps for Morpurgo’s early teen audience or sanitised family viewing, but coy on the risks real French people took to save their Jewish neighbours, friends and strangers.
Released on 21 February 2020