There are certain subjects that cannot function as the subtext to a standard motion picture. You can't, for example, force race or abortion into a typical teen farce and expect things to work. Similarly, religion and politics tend to cloud things considerably, making dramatics or thrills that much more difficult to achieve. Similarly, the Holocaust is such a narrative no-no that you just can't go around tossing it into any story you want. For the most part, the drama Spring 1941, tries to avoid such struggles. Indeed, when it stays within the complicated motivations of the characters, the movie kinds of works. But the minute it steps into Final Solution territory, with goofy grinning Nazis killing children willy-nilly, the film loses its focus and falls apart - and considering how tenuous its grip was initially, that's fatal.
Artur Planck is a successful doctor and surgeon. His wife Clara is an aspiring cellist. They have two lovely little daughters and are very popular in their Polish community. Then the Nazis invade. Soon, the Planck's are fleeing their manor house, hoping to survive the German's persecution of the Jewish population. Luckily, they find refuge in the attic of local farmer and widow Emilia. Of course, she has ulterior motives for letting the fractured family in. Long in love with Dr. Planck, Emilia makes them a deal - as long as he plays "man" of the house, she will be more than happy to hide them. But soon, said demands turns more personal and prohibitive. While Clara acquiesces for the sake of her own safety, Dr. Planck is not so secure in the arrangement. And when a nosy brother of Emilia starts making trouble, things turn from halting to horrific.
There is nothing wrong with Spring 1941 that a regular place on the Hallmark Channel's programming schedule couldn't cure. Even with all the children being gunned down by smiling soldiers, this is still World War II Lite, a prettied up version of what things must have really been like. Told in a surreal flashback/forward style that tends to confuse and then frequently merge periods, director Uri Barbash can't decides if he's making a romance, a thriller, a political statement, or a passive piece of historical hokum. Indeed, Spring 1941 is all these things and less - less interesting, less entertaining, and less memorable. By the time all the handwringing and arguing over bedding arrangements are over, when we realize that everyone here is doomed except for the characters we have seen surviving 30 years later, our desire for a denouement fizzles. Instead, we merely want the cast to collect up their belongings and be on their decidedly un-merry way.
The main problem here is the acting. In the 1971 material, Hellraiser honey Clare Higgins is excellent. She has the right amount of pained gravitas to pull off the moments of sudden startled memory. Even when she's doing a bit of scenery snacking, or faking her way through a symphony, she's the best part of this otherwise limp experience. When we go back in time, however, we must suffer through the slightness of Joseph Fiennes (as Artur), Kelly Harrison (as Emilia), and Nev McIntosh (as young Clara). Each one of these decidedly English thespians pour on the Eastern Bloc accent, making their roles more about vocal inflection than real feeling. And since the screenplay gives them little to do except argue and look hurt, the whole plot becomes an exercise in exasperation. We endure scene after pointless scene of mixed messages, confusing intent, and more than a little sexless longing.
Of course, Barbash is no better in his noble nonsense. The sequences where we actually see the atrocities being committed are kept at a distance, as if nonessential to the overall outcome of the film. Similarly, there are moments that make no sense, like the time when an argument over Artur taking food up to his family ends up with him practically raping Emilia - and then her buffoonish molester brother shows up, and suddenly there's a body to dispose of. Huh? Something similar happens when the Nazis storm the house, kept from discovering the hidden refugees by a plea by Emilia for...sex? Even the ending, which sees past and present mesh in a glamorized greatest hits of everyone we've seen before is a baffling bit of "WTF"? Honestly, there is a decent movie bubbling under the surface here, a stronger, more secure effort which wants to deal with adult themes and even more mature decisions. Instead, Spring 1941 is like someone whining while in line to their own execution. It seems pointless and particularly irritating.
Frankly this film looks pretty bad for a high end/definition blu-ray release. The 1080p 1.78:1 image is soft, hazy, lacking in real definition, and riddled with occasional flaws (either pre-planned or part of the print used). There is never a time when the picture "come to life." Instead, fleshtones seem fades and the attic scenes reek of a staged studio decor. Only the occasional landscape, usually loaded with flowers or fields of grain, offer any hint at the technical possibilities here. The rest of the time, Spring 1941 looks positively digital - and not in a good way.
Similarly, the sonic situation here is nothing to write home about. The two available mixes (2.0 lossless and Dolby Digital Surround) are mediocre at best, dialogue often lost in ambient noises and the director's desire to treat whispers as a way of making conversations seem dramatic. Elsewhere, the action in the city is stifled, barely registering on the immersion or atmospheric scales. In fact, the entire presentation of Spring 1941 is underwhelming at best - and when you consider the source, a less than stellar set-up makes a lot of sense.
None are offered, which doesn't seem to jibe when considering the historical element to the film.
It almost seems sacrilegious to slam Spring 1941, especially when you consider the historic and cultural backdrop being dramatized. Still, a bad movie is a bad movie, no matter where or when it is set. Had director Uri Barbash been a bit more careful with his time traveling tendencies, had he given his cast more to do than mope around and look lost, had he really made a movie about the depths to which people will dive in order to survive, we might have a riveting drama on our hands. Instead, this is just another well intentioned effort relegated to the Rent It department. As with other titles such as The Reader and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the Holocaust and its Final Solution strategies cannot be mere lip service to another, more meaningless narrative. For Spring 1941, the stakes appear to be rather high, but the outcome is lame indeed.