Hiding In Harmony

Haarlem, Holland. Spring, 1940. A swastika printed on red cloth, the Nazi flag, flies over that country.

The ten Boom family listens to Queen Wilhelmina over the radio. What was once a free country, she explains, now is part of the Third Reich. Betsie, Corrie, Willem, their father, and Willem’s wife think “it can’t happen here”; the Germans will not exterminate Dutch Jews. But they soon learn how wrong they are.

The story of the ten Boom family is famous through Corrie’s book The Hiding Place. When World Wide Pictures decided to make the book into a film, some people wondered whether it would be artistically and realistically translated into celluloid. Executive producer William F. Brown, director James F. Collier, and the rest of the crew more than succeeded.

The cast is strong and effective. The sensitive actress Julie Harris stars as Betsie; Eileen Heckart is Katje, the prisoner who keeps other prisoners supplied, for a fee, with cigarettes and medicine; and Jeannette Clift is Corrie. Minor roles, too, such as the young German officer (Lex Van Delden), Eusie, the persnickety Jewish scholar (David De Keyser), and Snake, the camp matron (Carol Gillies), are well acted. Arthur O’Connell, who as Papa is the weakest member of the cast, still gives a believable, humorous performance. Technically, the film is superbly constructed; special credit goes to photography director Michael Reed and make-up artists Bunty Phillips and Phil Leakey.

Tedd Smith, who wrote the musical score, spent several months researching the story. His orchestration of the haunting melody that recurs throughout the film gives it a sense of inevitability. Only woodwinds and strings could play this refrain. Smith frequently shifts from cellos to bassoons for a seamless musical fabric. The music subtly supports the action rather than overpowering it. A restrained, sustained cello captures the mood at the train station as the Jews are sent from Holland. A light-hearted gavotte underscores the comic drama as Corrie helps an elderly male Jewish professor disguised as Betsie to escape, her first such experience. The rhythm of the bicycles blends with the song’s dancing rhythm.

The gavotte also symbolizes the frolicsome, yet fevered way the sisters approach the underground. Although they deny to Willem that the work is fun and exciting to them, both music and action deny this. Holding Gestapo drills and timing to the second how long it takes the family to get the Jews into the hiding place seems like a game to Betsie and Corrie. Not until they hear the Gestapo squeal to a stop before their house do their faces show any understanding that their adventure is with life and death. And the orchestration changes from a single instrument to a full, tormented sound.

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At the conclusion of the film, when Corrie gets discharged from Ravensbruck concentration camp (according to the synopsis it happens because of a “clerical error,” but this is not evident from the film itself), the harmonic structure of the woodwinds creates a melancholy, bittersweet atmosphere, strikingly reminiscent both in sound and mood of the Jewish composer Gustav Mahler.

The music plays point-counterpoint with dialogue and action, as in the somber and witty conversation between Eusie and Corrie. Eusie, who obnoxiously refuses to carry his workload, tells Corrie of his wife and child, who he hopes escaped Holland. Cello and oboe (the English horn, I’m sure, represents Eusie, with its playfully snide sound) exchange notes as Corrie and Eusie exchange words. Eusie is more serious in this scene than in any other; his retort to Corrie’s “I’ll pray for your family,” though humorous, heightens the pathos: “Don’t think you’ll get me to peel potatoes.”

Even at the most serious moments of the story, humor smiles shyly through. God graciously provided the ten Boom family with a large amount of wit as well as a strong love of life and a deep faith. And Corrie and Betsie needed all these qualities to live at Ravensbruck. For example, Hut 28, to which the sisters were assigned, was overrun with lice. “Can you imagine what Mama would say?” asks Betsie and her sense of humor lightens the burden of lice.

The film, shot on location in Holland and England, realistically depicts both the agony of isolation and the psychological crippling of overcrowded barracks. Corrie, alone in a narrow cell, crouches in the corner. She moans, “Lord, I didn’t know I’d be all alone.” And when the camera focuses on her hands, folding and clenching, her dirty fingernails provide a striking contrast with the scrupulously clean house she kept before. Back at home, a shot of the steam kettle left boiling in Corrie’s room after the family’s arrest reinforces her isolation.

The producer and director did not shirk from showing the nearly stripped bodies of the women entering Ravensbruck, or their naked fight for clothes. Part of the torment of the concentration camp was the impersonality with which prisoners were treated. Physical stripping reflects the emotional and psychological stripping done by guards and wardens.

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Academy Award-winning Eileen Heckart (Katje) portrays pain so realistically that the viewer’s body aches, too. Her hand, battered bloody by rifle butts, seems to throb visibly. Even the soft cotton the nurse puts in her palm causes Katje to cringe.

The small Bible that Katje smuggles to Corrie (who thanks God for it, though Katje wryly asks, “Don’t I get any credit?”) comforts the prisoners. Spiritual discussions arise naturally from the story and seem not superimposed on it but necessary to it. World Wide Pictures had offers from several major film distributors but decided to do its own distribution. The other companies wanted to cut some of the spiritual content, and World Wide couldn’t compromise on that matter, according to producer Bill Brown. If it had, both spiritual and artistic integrity would have suffered.

Betsie, played by Julie Harris, leads the group in spiritual discussions. Her unfaltering faith would have seemed unreal played by a lesser actress. And Katje’s conversion right before Corrie leaves the camp would have been too abrupt without the skillful character development accomplished by both actress and cameraman. Often during Betsie’s Bible studies the camera veers to Katje, silently, skeptically, yet hungeringly attuned to God’s words. It is Katje who forces Corrie to look at Betsie’s body, beautiful and serene in death.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the way in which it raises hard ethical questions. Corrie lies to the Gestapo and passes coded messages that may mean someone’s death. She asks if it’s right to lie and steal and kill for a good cause. No glib answers are given.

World Wide produced two endings for the film, one for general audiences and one for church audiences. The church-audience ending is a minute-long shot of Corrie speaking directly to the viewers about what they’ve seen. The general-audience version ends with Corrie, released from prison, walking alone through the snow. The action freezes and slowly changes into an oil painting. On the left appear the death dates of her family, father, brother, sister, with a phrase telling of Corrie’s thirty-year tramp for the Lord. On the right is the sentence “telling in the light what she learned in the darkness,” which stays on the screen a few seconds longer than the rest, white on black. This conclusion ties in well with the opening, in which the background for the credits shows faded photographs changing from the real family to the film family.

The film has not yet had its final editing and will not be released until September. World Wide plans to replace two scenes and cut part of the opening scene. The film, which runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, needs further editing. About twenty to thirty minutes should be cut, perhaps between the train scene and Betsie’s illness. But any such weaknesses are minor.

The Hiding Place shows Christian film-making come of age. It should get recognition not only from churches but from the secular film world and the academy as well.


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