A fairy tale rooted in historical reality
“There are many things I will never forget: the sound of marching boots, air raid sirens, dark nights, and Hitler. I will never forget Hitler.” These are the opening words heard in The Crossing, released in Norway under the title Flukten over grensen (The flight over the border). Scenes from historic film footage stream across the screen, beginning with children playing and ending with burning cities, airplane bombers screeching, Nazi salutes, and Hitler.
It is 1942, and Norway’s Jews are being rounded up and arrested by the Nazis. Two children, Daniel and Sarah, walk toward their home. The film changes from black and white to color, a great subtle effect that transports you from the past to present and as a participant in the unfolding story. Something is amiss; the front door is open, and their father is absent. They quietly leave their home and are next seen being shut into a dark closet.
Based on a book by lauded Norwegian author Maja Lunde, Over grensen, this particular film, with its very adult theme, is actually geared for older children. It is an interesting topic on which to anchor a children’s story but no more harrowing than the murderous wicked queen in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty or the disregard for young human life illustrated in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.
Narrated by the fantasy-loving 10-year-old Gerda, whose persona is Porthos from The Three Musketeers, she wears her costume, a blue cape (which we later learn is “only an apron”) and lives in the country far from the war. But not for long. Her few years older brother, Otto, sneaks off with his friend to a Nazi meeting.
We soon learn that their parents and their aunt and young cousin (who becomes instrumental in the escape) are part of the resistance. Abruptly awoken by pounding on their door in the middle of the night, the police search their home, looking for Jewish children they are supposedly protecting. Nobody is found, but this leads to the parents’ arrest. Their pappa’s final words are: “Go to your Aunt Vigdis’ home for Christmas and make sure and bring the gifts in the cellar.” While their parents are being carried off, one police officer whispers to the children that they will be back home if there are no children found.
But Daniel and Sarah are found by Gerda and Otto, hidden behind a false wall in the cellar. It now becomes Gerda’s quest to save these two children by getting them over the border into free Sweden, while replicating the philosophy from the Musketeers, “All for one and one for all.” However, Daniel and Otto are not so easily convinced: Otto because of the propaganda he has absorbed about the Jews and Daniel because reality has made him wiser than he should have to be.
There are villains along the way, especially the obsessive Nazi commander. His ferocity is countered by a kind Nazi soldier, who is easily charmed by Gerda and keeps repeating to the commander that they are only children. He actually saves the children from capture, protecting their hiding place by explaining to the commander that the sound they heard in the forest chase was “only a fox.”
And straight out of Grimm’s writing is the scene of a seemingly kind woman who appears when she hears the children at her neighbor’s door. We learn that the neighbor has been taken by the police because he was part of the resistance. But he was also the children’s next hope. The woman invites these shivering, starving children into her home and plies them with a Christmas feast of sandkaker, ham, hot cocoa, and pepperkaker, a reference to the witch’s gingerbread house.
They are delighted by the candlelit table set with fine China. Daniel, however, is skeptical. He wonders, where did she get all this? Not wanting to leave the delicious party, one of them rationalizes, “Well she has a farm.” They go on to play hide and seek, when by chance they find a photo of Hitler. The woman returns to the house and invites them to bake cookies, a fire roaring behind her, a la Hansel and Gretel. As she tries to coax them into the kitchen, Daniel pushes her, locking her in. They escape and race into the forest, while the Nazi soldiers loom close behind with their menacing dogs.
The first word in the film’s original Norwegian title translates into “flight” or “escape,” which seems a more apropos noun than “crossing” for this film’s tale, pacing and the subject of fleeing to and flying after reaching freedom. The film does a splendid job of shifting from the heart-pounding Nazi chase that moves the narrative forward, to juxtaposed moments of captured childhood portrayed with singing, playing, and even a first romantic kiss. It is really the ability of humans to find the light, to be creative, to play, under the most horrifying conditions that allows us to survive. I truly appreciate that aspect of this film, which shows such depth. The film’s musical score assists in the success of jumping between these two opposing feelings, without overpowering. It is an evocatively effective accompaniment that had my pulse racing or joyful when appropriate.
The fearless Gerda is the hero of this story, but it is Otto’s character that has the most epic journey, transforming not only his physical limitations, but also his internal demons. He starts off blaming Jews for the war and his parents’ arrest, yet he truly has a metamorphosis, risking his life to save two Jewish children. One cannot help but be impressed by the resourcefulness of both siblings, who have a variety of strengths.Together they have the ability to follow their pappa’s directive, travel hundreds of miles by train and on foot, use a map and compass, find shelter, and succeed in their mission.
While this film provides a happy ending in telling this particular story, it does not leave the young audience ignorant of the plight Jews and others faced in occupied Norway. You are left with these final words. “This movie is dedicated to those who escaped, those who helped them, and those who never returned.”
The Crossing was released by Maipo Film AS in Norway and is being distributed by Menemsha Films (menemshafilms.com) in the United States. It is being shown at Jewish film festivals throughout North America and in various educational settings. To view The Crossing at home, visit chaiflicks.com.
All photos courtesy of Menemsha Films
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.