For Pete’s Sake
A touching satire on the forms of grace impeding a right understanding. The letter killeth, it takes a long time in this instance for Christian instruction to take hold properly.
Every-man-his-own-wife formalism is the mainstay of the initial conversion, it seems nothing will go right (and there is no wife). The garage mechanic loses his bearings, the young hooligans have a sort of emotionalism.
This amounts to singing hymns around the Christmas tree, the charming fellowship of campfire songs. Little more than this and such automatic responses would wither away like scabs on a wound.
“Surprising conversions,” inner workings, an incisive awareness of follies and scandals around the faith.
The Hiding Place
Wilhelmina delivers her address over the BBC, and the Nazi occupiers confiscate all the radios. A shop owner is harassed in the street, his wares are smashed one by one, for disloyalty to the Führer. Jews are forced to stand in line for the yellow Stars of David they are required to wear. Papa ten Boom (Arthur O’Connell) stands in line, too. “If we all wore them, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.” The man next to him in line points out that Ten Boom doesn’t have a “J” on his identity papers, and in weariness of spirit tells him to go home. Signs appear on café tables and in parks: JEWS NOT WELCOME, FORBIDDEN TO JEWS.
Ten Boom acquires a Star and wears it. A pastor (Nigel Hawthorne) admonishes him for his stubbornness, the sin of pride. To the pastor’s astonishment, Ten Boom has a Jewish baby in the house for safekeeping. Is it right, asks the pastor, to jeopardize so many for the sake of one Jewish baby? Ten Boom looks down scowling at this. He agrees to remove the Star, but keeps the baby. The question is, how did such a pastor come to wear the cloth? “A mouse may live in a cookie jar, but that doesn’t make it a cookie.”
Vincent Canby’s New York Times review is a notable error. He finds these devout Christians to have, by virtue of their faith, no dramatic interest whatsoever, even though it is tested in the hell of Ravensbrück, and at that he overlooks the crisis of faith experienced there by the author of this memoir, Corrie ten Boom (Jeannette Clift), which is precisely the dramatic conflict he finds lacking here.
The screenwriters, one of whom is the great Allan Sloane, have to portray the unworldliness of this family, and they find an amazing image for it. Papa ten Boom’s daughters are a pair of spinsters, Betsie (Julie Harris) and Corrie. One day they simply chance upon a Jew and bring him home for refuge, quite merrily. The image is a reversal of Arsenic and Old Lace (not buried in the basement but hidden in the attic), and this is cinched with a very funny joke. In those rationed times, a milkman knocks on the door, with full bottles. “Milk!”, says one of the daughters, and when she’s told it’s not milk but paint for the attic hiding place, she says with equal delight, “Paint!”, and the scene is repeated as her sister sees the gift.
The first half of the film concerns these labors of the Dutch Underground. Corrie is conscience-stricken when she is required to relay coded messages for military operations, and positively refuses to betray a quisling to certain death. This is the setup to the great joke from Beckett in the second half.
The Ten Booms are found out (but not the hiding place) and arrested. Papa dies shortly thereafter, the sisters are ultimately sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, where a wearied Betsie on the rock quarry is savagely beaten by a guard one day, and Corrie seeing this unthinkingly starts to move to her rescue with the pickaxe in her hands, full of rage. The other women restrain Corrie, however, and she is left only with her hatred, a new sensation.
Betsie, too, has found it difficult to maintain her faith under such circumstances, but her prayers are answered when a fellow Christian reveals herself. Religious discussion becomes one of the camp’s impromptu activities, beside literary or artistic discussion, singing, card-playing, etc.
Christ, whom Papa had been proud to point out was a Jew, suffered humiliation and torture and death as a criminal, Betsie tells the doubters. She herself is one of the victims of Ravensbrück, though her example inspired Corrie to a Christian witness in the face of the horrors, which is what The Hiding Place constitutes.
It’s an exceptionally well-filmed production in every respect. The acting is superb and expertly cast, including Eileen Heckart (whose resemblance to Lotte Lenya is advantageous) as a hardened scrounge of the camps, and Norman Rodway in a bit as one of the Ten Booms’ guests. There is a fine vein of comic savor in these early scenes, as the novelties of the situation impress themselves on all parties. A kosher house it cannot be, perhaps, and a cantor expects quiet accommodations with no children. Furthermore, he dodges work for prayer, and the sisters find the parable of Martha and Mary in their midst. He sings at a gathering in the parlor, a Hebrew blessing, and is hushed by agitated Rodway, who complains of his own name as absurdly troubling him. There is a knock on the door, all scurry, a lady is there asking, “Are you crazy, Betsie? The whole street can hear your Jews singing!”
The events of this film take place in Shanghai during the land reform program, before collectivization, before the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, before the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Management Revolution.
A prologue shows the city before the war and the Japanese invasion. Collier begins with a stunning image to show the pampered life of the heroine in her childhood. A man pulling a rickshaw arrives at her home. His passenger is a Western doll wearing the same dress as its new owner, who crossly notices a smudge on one of its shoes.
Her father, who is a doctor, is condemned for corruption. The girl graduates from college under the newly-emblazoned portrait of Chairman Mao, and is about to begin teaching a class of Red Army soldiers when she is summoned to interrogation. Why was she sent to a convent school as a child? Her father went to one in France. What influence did it have upon her? None, she was little. She is ordered to write a memoir on the spot, so as to scrutinize her motivations.
The interrogations continue and intensify. She is beaten and kicked, though she is pregnant (her husband is a cosmopolitan fellow graduate, fond of Chopin and boogie-woogie). She is locked in a classroom overnight, and ponders her situation.
Her husband tries to visit her, but is debarred by a soldier outside. The moon is very bright, so that he squints at it. Inside the unlit classroom, his wife sees it also. She draws a cross on the blackboard, like a saint in the catacombs.
She is stood in front of a firing squad in the courtyard. Is she a Christian? She won’t forsake God, who didn’t forsake her. The order is given to fire. A “freak electrical storm” blinds the squad, who shoot and miss.
The miracle is as crude as the one at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Cold Heaven. The conversion in memory and moonlight is Collier’s best effect.
The colonel supervising the case lets it go (it’s early days, the triumph of “pure Communism” will take several generations, he can bide his time).
At the food rationing window she meets a fellow Christian, and joins an ad hoc congregation. Here the formal problem of Collier’s endgame is announced. The minister in his mufti has a word for her from God, which is the very anodyne pronouncement that she must proceed “one day at a time.” She already knows, by divine inspiration, that she and her family will leave China for freedom.
Her husband is arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage. She is sent to a “labor re-education camp,” where the daily activities are hauling rocks and listening to slogans. Being in an advanced state of pregnancy, she requests her maternity leave and is bureaucratically scoffed at. She persists, months go by, she sends a telegram to Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai and the party leaders, claiming the freedom promised by the Revolution.
This works, like the appeal to President Theodore Roosevelt in Elliott Nugent’s My Girl Tisa. She is allowed to visit her husband’s family in Hong Kong, even though the leadership know she won’t come back. “Take your God with you,” says the colonel, who has a portrait of Lenin on his wall, “in ten years he’ll be locked away in a museum.” The exhausted, sickly woman before him says, “you would have to imprison the wind.”
And so, the rather anodyne ending has her walking across the wasteland with her young son to meet her husband.
France Nuyen and James Shigeta play her parents. The rest of the cast is fine, David Worth’s cinematography also, and the film was shot in Hong Kong and Macao.