“Miracle at Midnight” (1998), a based-on-a-true-story Disney television production, features Patrick Malahide in the small but pivotal role of Georg Duckwitz, the German embassy’s naval attaché to the occupying Nazi forces in 1943 Copenhagen, Denmark.
Synopsis and spoilers follow, or scroll down for the gallery:
We are first introduced to the Koster family: Dr. Karl Koster (Sam Waterston), wife Doris (Mia Farrow), college-aged son Henrik (Justin Whalin), and daughter Else (Nicola Mycroft). Dr. Koster is the head of one of Copenhagen’s hospitals and is doing his best to keep things running normally under the occupation. He treats injured German military personnel and Danish resistance members alike, but proves that he is willing to risk much by falsifying the latter’s records and reporting the false data to German authorities. Koster is also close friends with Rabbi Abrams (Barry McGovern) and his family. The Kosters’ story comprises the bulk of the movie’s action, but rather than spoil all of the details, I’ll concentrate on Malahide’s role.
We suspect from the first that there is more to Georg Duckwitz than there appears to be. He greets his friend, General Werner Best (Benedick Blythe), with a Nazi salute upon Best’s return from Berlin, but he also expresses some reservations regarding the orders Best has brought back with him: he’s to round up Copenhagen’s Jews for deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Duckwitz tries to gently persuade Best that perhaps he should reconsider, pointing out that the Danish population has historically been very tolerant and may prove uncooperative if the Germans enact deportation orders against Danish Jewish citizens. Best brushes these concerns aside and reminds Duckwitz that Germany holds all of the power.
Faceless figures in decidedly German-looking cars are shown breaking into a Jewish community centre. We learn from a meeting of Best, Duckwitz, and Anderson, a member of the now-resigned Danish government, that records of the names and addresses of Copenhagen’s Jews were stolen. Anderson emphasizes that this is a dangerous theft of information but Best dismisses his fears, reminding him that the Danish government abrogated its responsibility for its citizens, including Jews, when its members resigned. However, what Best doesn’t tell Anderson is that he has every intention of using the stolen information to carry out his orders.
Best confides to Duckwitz that he is planning a surprise attack on Copenhagen’s Jews. For maximum effect, Jewish homes will be searched and their inhabitants arrested at midnight on the Rosh Hashanah holiday, when most Jews will be at home. Best is extremely keen to round up every last Danish Jew and prove himself to Berlin. Duckwitz takes the information and meets Anderson in a park (“You’re late, my friend,” says Anderson, suggesting this is something Duckwitz has done before), tipping off Anderson to Best’s plan.
We next see Rabbi Abrams telling his congregation to pass the word: Jews at home on Rosh Hashanah will be arrested and deported, and everyone should leave or hide before midnight on that day. A massive movement of people follows as many Danes, hearing about the operation, help to hide or transport Jews away from Copenhagen. Dr. Koster enlists his hospital staff to disguise Jews as patients and hides the Abrams family in his own home. Duckwitz is in the thick of it, watching nervously as troops are assembled for the operation even as he makes plans with Best to blockade the harbour and prevent escapes.
The night of the operation arrives. Best waits impatiently in his office for Major Langer (Mario Rosenstock) to bring word of its expected complete success, while Duckwitz nonchalantly reads the Nazi party paper. At this point, Duckwitz has no idea if his tip-off has worked. Langer arrives, saying that most of Copenhagen’s 7,500 Jews have simply vanished – those found at home were either old, or bed-ridden invalids, or suicides. Instead of the expected 7,500 Jews, only some 300 have been arrested and the operation is effectively a failure. Best is incensed and Duckwitz comments that it’s “unthinkable” for so many Jews to have simply vanished, with no sign of how he really feels about his tip-off having gone so well.
Best soon realizes that the operation’s plans must have been leaked somehow, possibly at the highest levels. His reputation with German high command on the line, he calls Duckwitz into his office and openly (and very angrily) accuses him of being a traitor. Without even the slightest trace of nervousness, Duckwitz reaffirms that he’s Best’s friend and could never do such a thing to him. It’s a bravado display of bare-faced lying, or the best acting job Duckwitz has ever done. Fortunately, Best believes him and apologizes for thinking he could be capable of betrayal. Duckwitz breathes an almost visible sigh of relief; he’s safe, for now.
Mass Exodus to Sweden
The massive exodus continues, with Jews making their way to neutral Sweden from Danish coastal towns in small fishing boats. Dr. Koster and his children are able to escape as well (they’re wanted for hiding the Abramses), but Doris is detained. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t mention that the real-life Duckwitz also had a role in persuading Sweden to accept the Danish Jewish refugees. The end result is a remarkable display of altruism and human feeling towards others during some of the most trying circumstances that can be imagined.
The Bravest Man in Denmark
In the final scene, Anderson says that “the bravest man in Denmark is a German” and asks Duckwitz why he, as a German, risked so much for others. Duckwitz explains, with increasing emotion, that he came to Denmark as a young man, met with acceptance everywhere, and began to regard it as his home. He says that when one’s home is on fire, one does everything one can to save it, and simply adds, “My home was on fire.”
This was a surprisingly accurate movie based on real-life events. Production values were good and I was happy to see that it didn’t talk down to the viewer, nor did it become preachy about its subject. Ireland stands in for wartime Denmark and the settings are shot well. Malahide does a lovely job even though it’s a small role, conveying a great deal by small nuances in his expression and demeanour. He also looks simply smashing in 1940s fashions. 🙂 An entertaining watch.