Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985)

Richard Chamberlain is, of course, miniseries royalty.  Even if he had done just “The Thorn Birds” and “Shogun,” he would have that bragging right.  But, roles in “Centennial” and especially “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story” are actually bigger acting gigs for him.  His dreamy looks (for the 70s and 80s) and romantic swagger were ideal for the miniseries, and he was able to sustain his performances across the epic sweeps of the movies.  In “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story,” he gives what I think is easily his finest performance, an old-fashioned acting performance where he sinks his teeth into a complex and interesting character and never lets go.  Of course, being the saviour of Jews in World War II is the kind of role every actor wants, but what makes Wallenberg such an interesting man is his unyielding and very chipper devotion to what he’s doing.  Unlike Oskar Schindler, whose reasons for saving Jews were a but more clouded and selfish, the Raoul Wallenberg of this story does it simply for the humanity of it, which gives Chamberlain a chance to bask in the reflected glory of the character, but not relying on that reflection.  He pushes himself here and it works.
It’s August 30, 1944 at the Wallenberg estate in Sweden.  There is much celebrating and a bonfire.  However, on the same night in Budapest, a synagogue is also on fire.  And further, there is a party going on at Admiral Horthy’s (Guy Deghy) is hosting Adolph Eichmann himself (Kenneth Colley).  He is introduced by Baroness Lisl Kemeny (Alice Krige), who flatters him by saying he doesn’t look at all “fearsome” like his reputation.  Her husband, Baron Gabor Kemeny (Stuart Wilson), is to be part of a “cleansing” in Budapest.

At the Wallenberg party, a drunken Raoul Wallenberg (Richard Chamberlain) actually dares to insult the Nazis, much to his parents’ horror.  “You have supplied them with gas…for heating and cooking, of course,” he quips before launching into an imitation of Hitler that gives the usually-sleep-inducing TV icon a bit of ham on which to chew. 

Resistance worker Nikki Fodor (Mark Rylance), warns a concert of Hungarian Jews of the coming hoodlums.  Admiral Horthy, who says “I was an anti-Semite before you were born,” as proof of his commitment to the Nazi cause, but “I am not going to violate this ancient Hungarian tradition” of trusting the Jews with their money and turning them over to death camps. 

Now, that our story is set up, it’s time to get to know Raoul Wallenberg.  His father considers him a “dilettante,” though his mother defends him.  He has some sort of job importing and exporting, but nothing too taxing.  Raoul is not at all thrilled by the Nazis, and that leaning has caught the attention of Roosevelt’s people in Budapest, who offer him a diplomatic cover in order to help their cause.  He’s already converted, of course, nothing that “I would go to any lengths to save Jews.” 

Up against Raoul’s knowledge of what is going on, the Baron and Baroness are the voices of idiocy.  She whines that she can’t find a tailor in Budapest anymore because all the Jews have “disappeared.”  The Baron has some idea, but ignores it, hoping to cozy up to Eichmann in the hopes of being made foreign minister, replete with a new uniform and all. 

If you’ve been wondering how all of this will come together, it only takes 25 minutes of the miniseries before Raoul is sent to Hungary for his top secret and very dangerous mission.  It’s late in the war and conditions are so grim that “Second Secretary” Raoul Wallenberg has to ride a crowded train, a melting pot of different flotsam and jetsam still able to travel through Europe.  But, his discomfort is nothing compared to what he sees outside of his window as a train going East rolls by, with desperate Jews begging for help. 

In Budapest, the Jews are wrangled up by the Hungarian police (“they will treat us with respect,” one man assumes), but Nikki refuses to go.  Before being able to fight, he has to get his girlfriend Hannah (Georgia Slowe) to understand exactly what is happening. 

When Raoul arrives at the Swedish embassy building in Budapest, he has to fight through throngs of people begging to be let in and given Swedish protection.  He is told by Per Anger (David Robb) that they can only help the Jews who “can establish family or business ties…there is a limit.”  Raoul asks, “why?” and Per dismisses the question, as Raoul will have to find out for himself just how difficult this task will be.  He tells everyone at the embassy that “we can make honorary Swedish citizens of them all,” but is told “that’s impossible.”  Raoul still doesn’t understand what is going on completely.  He says he needs a staff of 100 people to help on his mission, although he’s not asking the embassy for money or staff.  The money is coming from the people who actually hired him and for staff, he wants to use all the Jews begging to be let in.  Well, that sounds good to everyone at the embassy, but they warn him, “do not offend anybody” or else the whole plan will be at risk.

Raoul better act quickly because Eichmann is making his rounds of the area, telling Jewish leaders they must select workers, as he did in Poland and other countries, the Nazi way of letting others think they had a choice.  He’s interrupted by an aide who gives him the horrifying news that a train bearing over 12,000 Jews to Birkenau (“a new record, I think,” he says with glee) has been stopped and turned back to Budapest.  “That train must be stopped and we must carry on until we clean out every piece of Jew crap in Hungary,” Eichmann says, more villainous with every line.

This is Raoul’s first big success.  Word gets around quickly and the embassy is swamped.  “We need something bigger!” he tells Per, in order to save 700,000 people.  He does help one woman, Sonja (Melanie Mayron), who has a small son and because of her proficiency with languages and skills.  She’s hired on the spot and thus has her protection as an employee of the Swedish legation.  He’s not above printing fake royal seals on letters to save Jews either. 

At a rather bizarre nightclub where a woman belts out “Stormy Weather” without any clue as to what lyrics she’s singing, Raoul and Per are in attendance when Eichmann, the Baron and Baroness come in.  He has a bottle of champagne sent to the table.  “Do you know what it is to be a Rockefeller in America?  That’s what it is to be a Wallenberg in Sweden,” the Baron says his wife, who has never heard of him.  Eichmann clucks that he “has to keep the neutrals happy” and trots off to make nice with Raoul.  The Baroness takes quite a fancy to Raoul from across the restaurant too.  “I’m here to help you with your Jewish problem,” Raoul gives Eichmann as an excuse for his being sent to Budapest.  “What can Sweden help with?  Freight cars?  Winter clothing?  Please, don’t try to camouflage your mission,” which he knows of down to the Americans who are behind it.  They actually pretend to play nice and make a business deal for housing.  Raoul offers Eichmann money for housing, but Eichmann snaps that it works out to “only a dollar a Jew,” and he’s been offered more.  Even worse, as he gets up to go, the sinister man notes that he’s overcome “your little delay” and managed to get two trains of Jews sent East to make up for the one Raoul was able to bring back.  Per tells Raoul, “some Nazis are less interested in the war than they are in murdering Jews.”  “I am determined too, and stubborn,” Raoul says in response, believing himself to be Eichmann’s equal. 

There is a terrific scene where Raoul goes to the Hungarian leader to beg for his help.  The wily old diplomat, playing both sides, says he can’t understand why Sweden’s King Gustav is “so interested in Jews,” and is peeved that the Swedish legation is playing around with Hungarian citizens in the first place.  Raoul wants him to agree to let hundreds of thousands of Jews come under his protection, but he is allotted only 4500.  International politics being what they are, the quid pro quo is that Raoul “tell the Allies of my benevolent treatment of Jews.”  What makes the scene so interesting is the mindset of the Hungarian government.  It’s clear that the Nazis are losing the war by this point, but they are still very much a presence and to antagonize them can still mean big trouble.  Raoul can’t understand it, but he has to accept it. 

As if the Nazis aren’t enough of a problem, Raoul doesn’t find an easy time with all of the Jews.  Asking a wealthy Budapest Jew to sign over his houses to the Swedish government for the duration of the war, the man actually refuses because they are all he has left and he wants his children to inherit something.  Raoul cannot guarantee the outcome of the war.  “Who are you to lecture me?  Some nice Swedish boy with nothing at stake?”  “I’m one of you, I’m half Jewish.  Don’t you see I’m fighting for my life as well as yours?”  That does the trick, at least partially.  “Does this entitle me to one of those Swedish documents of yours?” he man asks.  “A mint copy,” Raoul assures him.  “Half Jewish?  You told me your great-great-grandfather was Jewish,” his driver quips.  “One-sixteenth Jewish, call me a liar for a fraction?” he jokes back.  What’s important is the last line of the scene.  “I feel half Jewish,” Raoul says, and it’s not just lip service. 

Then there are the resistance leaders who have taken the Swedish paperwork in order to make fakes from it, but so many that Nikki is worried that the Nazis will be suspicious.  They have their own way of doing things.

However, with houses and Swedish flags, Raoul can save a lot of Jews, and right under the nose of the Hungarian army, without their yellow stars.  It’s a major victory for Raoul and his friends.  Of course, just when all is going so well, Eichmann shows up at the Swedish legation.  “I respect the Swedes, even new ones,” he snarls to Raoul and Per.  Eichmann strides around room full of Jews in Raoul’s office with a joking demeanor that is even scarier than when he yells directly.  Raoul disarms the tension by doing an imitation of the awful man as soon as he leaves.  “Could we really be winning here?” Per asks.  “Better to hope than not, especially for them,” Raoul replies.  He figures that Eichmann is leaving Budapest because the Hungarian army is too small and Eichmann has to beg Hitler for more soldiers.  In the meantime, the Russians are on their way West, so Budapest might still stand a chance. 

That doesn’t mean atrocities are halted completely.  The Baron and Baroness drive into a mass execution and almost get shot themselves, the first time the Baroness realizes what is actually happening.  “Women!” she exclaims.  Her husband tries to sooth her by saying it’s “old hatred” and not their problem, but her eyes are now open.  Buying flowers, she sees Raoul on the street motivating his men and wants to meet him.  “I have heard such wonderful things about you.  I had to meet you,” she says, all aglow, handing a rose to a Jewish worker before going off to have coffee with Raoul. 

Raoul has a marvelous crack made to shock the Baroness.  They are offered pastry in a restaurant and she refuses.  He insists, saying, “if only to reassure ourselves that the ovens of Budapest are still turning out splendid (pause) pastry.”  She is pulled back down to earth that one, but still claims “I find it hard to believe.”  “Decent people always find it hard to believe,” he retorts.  She says she sought him out to hear his side, but he tells her “there are no sides” and lists all of the Nazi atrocities.  He wants her help, to convince her husband to “stop this extermination or he will pay for it like the others.”  She is very upset by the conversation and leaves.

He picks up the thread at a party the Swiss give for the diplomatic corps, stealing a dance with her to parry dialogue back and forth.  The Baroness starts off frosty, but is just about to drop that demeanor when her husband reappears to fetch her.  Per rushes in with the bad news that the Nazis are on their way back to Budapest. 

Hungary surrenders and Horthy is forced to abdicate upon the return of Eichmann and he’s in a mood to kill.  The Hungarian army falls right in line, though the resistance continues to plug away.  Nikki dresses up as a Nazi and tries to save Hannah, who has come to a work camp to deliver fake Swedish papers.  However, a German officer takes her “for fun,” and Nikki is powerless to stop him.  At least until Raoul arrives and summons everyone in the camp with Swedish papers.  The Nazis are not happy to see him, pointing guns and threatening to shoot him.  That’s a perfect place to end the first part of the miniseries.

The second part starts exactly where we left off, with the young German Nazi soldiers firing over his shoulder and Raoul still insisting that anyone with a Swedish pass join him.  “You will answer to the Red Cross and the Swedish-German Friendship Society” if he is touched, Raoul tells the Nazi in charge, a bold move, but one that works!  Nikki watches with relief as Hannah is saved, along with many others.  Raoul even takes those who don’t have passes, accepting any piece of paper they can produce, with the Nazis powerless to do anything.  “He has a Swedish flag on his car, doesn’t he?” the Nazi in charge spits out. 

As Raoul heads the flank of Jews leaving the camp, like Moses, the saved hear gunshots, aimed at Jews as reprisals from the upset Hungarian soldiers.  “Keep walking!” he shouts. 

Raoul still needs the Baroness, hoping once again to push her into pushing her husband, but she insists, “I will not be disloyal to him.”  Raoul trots out his fear tactic again, that if the Baron doesn’t “disassociate himself from this government of madmen,” he will stand trial and be executed when the war is over.  She tells Raoul she is pregnant, and can’t let her baby grow up without a father. 

The Baroness decides to take a crack at her husband, telling him that she’s worried about the approaching Russians and gently slipping in Wallenberg’s name.  The Baron isn’t buying it.  “Who gives a damn about him or his Jews?” but she continues to gently pursue the matter, though the Baron is only interested in sex.  But, later on, as Russian bombs rain down on Budapest, the Baroness is stronger, not only using political arguments, but the whole “I will not let our baby be born into a world where…” argument.  The Baron initially rages against the Jews, saying “I’ve told them for years” to essentially blend in and go unnoticed, but she heads that off, telling him he must go to the cabinet and “make them see what they must do!”  It seems to do some good because she hears later on the radio the cabinet proclaiming safety for the Jews just as he arrives home. 

Crowing a bit, with gifts of cigarettes, Raoul goes to Eichmann to report that he’s heard Himmler has “ordered the gas turned off” and that Auschwitz is “to be dismantled.”  Eichmann claims it’s not true.  In fact, he is dogmatic in his mission: to be the person responsible for the most Jewish deaths in Europe.  “Don’t be encouraged by your little moment,” he tells Raoul.  “Himmler be damned.  I’ll decide the fate of Hungarian Jews.”  Undeterred, when Eichmann says he knows Raoul’s little secret, that he’s Jewish, Raoul retorts, “I’m one-sixteenth Jewish, less than I would prefer.”  Raoul keep baiting Eichmann until the latter explodes, showing his desperation.  “I want that Jew lover dead before the day ends,” Eichmann tells his staff as Raoul leaves. 

A trap is set and a German truck pummels Raoul’s car.  Sonja is injured, but not seriously.  Raoul calls Eichmann to congratulate him on the ruse, “but I was not in the car” and hangs up, with a clearly irate Eichmann still holding the phone.  For that, Eichmann orders the Jews “to be marched.”  That includes the ones under Wallenberg’s protection.  “Let them blow their noses in it,” one soldier jokes with another as he pulls down the Swedish flag.  Even the resistance is forced to say it’s time to call in Wallenberg.

Teicholz (Ralph Arliss) goes to see Raoul where all the Jews have been rounded up.  At first, the Pole is argumentative, but Raoul says they “are beginning to overlap.”  If Teicholz won’t directly ask for help, Raoul speaks up and says he wants access to the resistance underground or Budapest “will have no survivors.”  Teicholz has “room for 300,” but Raoul wants 1000, “so make room.” 

As the Jews are corralled into the Hungarian labor camp, trust Nikki is there in his uniform.  The only people left at the Swedish legation are Raoul and Per.  “Do you ever miss those carefree Scandinavian days?” Raoul asks?  Per does, but Raoul doesn’t not.  “Perhaps nothing ever did before now, Raoul,” Per replies, “you found yourself HERE.”  Per is despondent and wants to go home to his wife as Raoul says, “we hit rock bottom today.” 

At the end of this very difficult day, there is a bright spot when the Baroness walks into the legation.  Is she there to “plead your husband’s case” as Raoul puts it?  Well, she does want him to know that her husband tried to stop the Nazis and that “he’s a good man,” but there’s a bit of self-preservation too.  If he ever is tried, will Raoul testify? 

But there’s more, and this is where the movie hits a snag.  This tight tense story is interrupted by a love plot.  The miniseries format virtually demanded it of every movie, but it’s particularly needless here.  “I’m here because I have to be,” she says breathlessly.  There’s a kiss and then she says she has to go, but she has some superb words on her way out.  She says their mutual priest friend told her, “the Nazis’ greatest victory was convincing the Jews they were doomed.  But now, you changed that, for thousands of them.”  That’s an incredibly powerful line and redeems the entire scene. 

The situation for the Jews in the Hungarian camp worsens.  Some of the characters we’ve met are killed, others beaten.  For Raoul, it’s a race against time.  If he can stop the trains from leaving Hungary, he may be able to save them, because once the trains leave Hungarian soil, he cannot help.  As he drives to the train station, his car slowed as it winds its way through the miserable masses headed to the same place, he wonders how this can be possible in Christianity.  “Perhaps we are witnessing the death of God,” he says mournfully. 

At the station, Raoul is frantic.  Luckily, the Hungarian army is fine with being bribed, and then he has to physically get as many people off the trains as possible, using phony certificates, saying “they are in the ledger,” anything to stall.  The Nazis on hand are not happy, but the Hungarians calm them.  When a Nazi asks the Hungarian commander if he was bribed, he says he was, “but you’ll get your chance.”  After all, Raoul can’t save them all, so plenty will be on those trains to make the Nazis happy. 

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief about the end of the movie.  Raoul is able to save Jews over and over through various methods, but his triumph is getting the local Nazis to call off an order from Eichmann to machine gun 100,000 Jews.  The Germans flee as the Russians approach and the Jews are free to break the padlocks on the ghetto doors.  It’s this wonderful sight Raoul sees as he drives out of Budapest.  “We did make a difference,” he says.

Though the story ends better for many of the Jews in Budapest than it did across most of Europe, Raoul’s personal story is one of epic tragedy, almost unreal if it weren’t the truth.  In January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg went to meet with the Russian commander and was never seen again.  It’s believed he died in captivity in 1947, but rumors and sightings popped up for many years.  The man who had literally stood in the firing line to save so many people simple vanished.

I don’t know how many stories the creators of “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story” intended to tell.  Obviously, the one involving Raoul Wallenberg, but what also comes across strikingly is the Hungarian situation near the end of the war.  We are so used to hearing about the Western Front or the concentration camps themselves in the Eastern Front, or the great naval battles of the Pacific that it almost seems like the entire world was not at war.  Hungary was very much a part of World War II, on the Axis side, though under Nazi domination.  Through a very small lens (the Baron and Baroness), we’re able to learn a lot, mainly how even countries in the thick of the Final Solution could be unaware of what was happening, if they chose to be.  Something similar happens in “Holocaust” as we watch simple Germans come under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda, but that’s a more familiar story. 

Of course, the main story goes to Raoul Wallenberg, a hero is ever there was one.  The title doesn’t even need to say “A Hero’s Story,” to crown him as such, but I suspect that her was so long forgotten, that without it, no one’s interest would have been piqued.  No doubt Steven Spielberg told Oskar Schindler’s story with far more brio and pathos, but a network miniseries could not have told that story and been nearly as powerful.  Wallenberg’s story, which takes place in just a few brief months, is fascinating, and made believable by Richard Chamberlain’s actorly charm and passionate devotion to creating a robust character. 

Comments?  Question?  Email me at hpmaraka@gmail.com.  I would love to hear from you.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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