Das Boot ist voll (“The Boat is Full”, 1981) // Rejecting Jewish Refugees

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Five Jewish refugees and a Nazi deserter make it to the northern Swiss borough of Siblingen. They are taken in with trepidation by a plain-speaking innkeeper and his wife. But the villagers have cottoned on, and circle the inn with unknown intentions. Das Boot ist voll depicts the following twenty-four hours.

This realist drama slices through Swiss propaganda of the Second World War, which told of valiant neutrality and the humanitarian tradition. The film’s title refers to a speech made in August 1942 by Bundesrat Eduard von Steiger, head of the Police and Justice Department:

Whoever commands a small lifeboat that is already full, of limited capacity and with an equally limited amount of provisions, while thousands of victims of a sunken ship scream to be saved, must appear hard when he cannot take everyone, and yet he is still humane, when he warns against false hopes and tries to save at least those he has taken in.

The speech signalled a hardline approach to the fresh wave of Jewish refugees queuing outside Switzerland. Word had spread over Europe of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, and Switzerland and Spain remained the only potential points of escape. While accepting political refugees such as deserters or escaped prisoners of war, Switzerland began to reject applications for asylum on the basis of race. Any incomers with a “J” in their foreign passports were to be sent back. These laws are explained and implemented in various scenes in the movie. The refugees and their helpers do their best to circumvent them. But will it be enough?

Das Boot ist voll brutally brings home the human consequences of this policy on both its Jewish victims and the Swiss citizens who were compelled to collaborate.

Worth a watch?

No diegetic music is used – it isn’t needed. The screenplay seizes you from the off and escalates the danger to almost unbearable levels. The dynamic resembles those suspense sequences in Inglorious Basterds – when “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa visits the French farmhouse harbouring refugees, or the Nazi bar where our American heroes go undercover – but Tarantino gives plenty of time to breath in between, unlike director Markus Imhoof in this film.

Anyway, the audience knows what to expect from Nazis. In Das Boot ist voll, the danger is ever-present, but also deeply unpredictable, because it takes the form of Swiss rural folk who may be friend, foe or anything in between – most of them haven’t even decided yet. This is encapsulated by Mathias Gnädinger’s a tour de force performance as the innkeeper. In spite of his conservative instincts, he can’t contain his sense of injustice.

We see Nazi soldiers in action only once, at the beginning of the movie. They are brutal, cruel and efficient. Narratively that scene underlines the threat to our characters, but it it also emphasizes a kind of amateurishness in everybody else in the movie: the Jewish contingent, who clumsily reinvent themselves according to what they guess will bring survival; the villagers, who stumble from racist slurs to genuine sympathy and willingness to help illegally; and the Landjäger (village policeman), who sadistically enjoys rooting out interlopers, but is revealed to be just as flabbergasted as everyone else.

Characters are in the main presented with compassion, with little in the way of simplistic blame placed with the Swiss “collaborators”. Instead, the brunt of this film’s intense anger is directed at the absurdity of a system whose rules will inevitably lead to tragedy if followed to the letter.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate). A powerful film for anyone, including those who don’t know anything about Switzerland; but part of the tension comes from apprehending how recognizable types will react to the situation.
Language: High German and Swiss German. Subtitles available.
Availability: It’s on PlaySuisse.

Swissness Lab Report: Rejecting Jewish Refugees

The phrase “dark chapter” crops up a lot when watching Swiss movies, and as we begin to deal with Second World War movies we creak open one of the most fetid, louse-ridden volumes in the Helvetic historical library. This will not be the last film we look at set in, or filmed during, the thirties and forties; for one thing, Swiss cinema “came of age” during the propaganda films of that era. A direct evolutionary line can be seen from the foremost director of the period, Leopold Lindtberg, himself a Jewish refugee, and the director of Das Boot ist voll, Markus Imhoof, who worked with Lindtberg in the Sixties. This movie is thus the product of multiple generations of confrontation with, and fury against, actions taken by the Swiss authorities which led to the deaths of Jews.

Why did the Swiss start rejecting Jewish refugees in 1942? A letter sent out by the Police Department gives two principle reasons: firstly, food was in limited supply; secondly, the twin national security risk of letting in dangerous elements, while simultaneously upsetting Axis powers. A third reason that crops ups is the risk of civil unrest, that virus of anti-Semitism that may take hold of the country if it was forced to share its resources with more Jews. These are powerful arguments which, combined with the existing anti-Semitic strain amongst the authorities themselves, led to some of the most fatally flawed decision-making in Swiss history.

As a foreigner who tends to engage with more critical viewpoints of the “official narrative”, it nevertheless remains a kind of miracle that Switzerland mostly avoided combat taking place on its soil during the Second World War. Despite being surrounded by Axis forces, this small country prevented its towns from being razed and its people compelled to collaborate with the Nazis, or even fight alongside them. It did so in spite of having three distinctive linguistic regions with strong ties to very different political entities: France, Germany and Italy. There were a wide variety of complex reasons for this strategic and diplomatic triumph – and yes, some of them are nefarious – but it was a triumph, and generations of Swiss have been able to profit from it. And I mean all senses of the word “profit”: The rich great-granddaughter of the fictional Flückiger family in Das Boot ist voll would be able to look back and see her parents as heroes; the rich great-grandson of the stickler-for-the-law Landjäger can look back and say his ancestor did his duty, even if it was unpalatable. Neither of these fictional Swiss grandchildren would find ancestors in the gas chambers of Treblinka, or conquered and forced to fight, perhaps die, in the name of fascism.

Flückiger confronts the Landjäger over the future of the refugees

And the Swiss undeniably undertook humanitarian action during the war. Thousands of refugees of refugees were taken in during that period, as we see in the work camp in the movie. The Bergier report, an epic review of the country’s actions written by team of historians and published in 2002, states that “during the Second World War, Switzerland offered around 60,000 civilians refuge from persecution by the Nazis for periods ranging from a few weeks to several years.”

Still, could the Swiss have done a much better job at saving thousands of Jews from genocide, without seriously damaging their country? According to the Bergier report, the answer is unequivocally “Yes”. Of those 60,000 civilian refugees mentioned above, “less than half were Jewish.” It goes on to estimate that 20,000 civilians were turned back or deported, many of whom would have been Jewish, given the stringent and discriminatory “full lifeboat” policy. Many more Jews would have been discouraged from even trying it.

The Bergier report addresses, and debunks, each of the “boat is full” arguments in favour of this discrimination.

The population was not at risk of “turning Nazi” in the face of more Jewish migration. Although the Bergier report concedes that it is very difficult to tap into the “common opinion” back in the forties, and emphasizes the wide range of political views in Switzerland at the time, at least part of the nation was “very willing to help the refugees”, as we see on numerous occasions in Das Boot ist voll. There was certain some anti-Semitism amongst the population, and especially amongst the elite, but there were also demonstrations against the restrictive policy. In short, the Bergier report found nothing to suggest that the Swiss would have rejected the situation if the government had done its duty and “informed the population about the threat hanging over the Jews and had called for solidarity.”

The ambivalent power of the Gemeinde is highlighted again (see also e.g. Die Käserei in der Vehfreude)

There was no risk, or only a limited one, to national security. In fact, the authorities explicitly stated that “the German threat was not an important factor in the decision to close Switzerland’s borders” (Bergier report). They never applied pressure to Switzerland.

Most importantly, the boat was not full. There was enough food and resources in Switzerland to cope with more refugees. Even in September 1942, a month after implementing the hardline policy, a Bundesrat said “food supplies are not a problem at the moment” – and rejected an offer of American aid to provide food on condition of taking in more refugees. The Bergier Report concludes “a real emergency situation with regard to the supply of food… never in fact arose”. We see that in Das Boot ist voll when Frau Flückiger feeds them all ham in spite of the meat ration. Some of the Jews refuse to eat it and when Herr Flückiger finds out, he takes some for himself, and gives some to a colleague, handling it as a toy rather than an essential source of nourishment.

Reading the report of 2002 shows that Imhoof had really done his research twenty years before, as we see in the closing intertitles. By showing us a complex, flawed society clumsily nudging refugees along their tragic path, Imhoof does justice to the highly ambiguous role of Switzerland during the war.

Neutrality means avoiding both black and white in favour of a shade of grey – in this case, a very dark shade indeed.

The “J” stamp on German passports also resulted from Swiss foreign policy. This will be examined more closely in our review of Grüningers Fall (1997).


The Bergier report is online in a decent English translation. Refugees is covered in Part 3. There is a corresponding section in the conclusion.

The “History” chapter of Steinberg, Why Switzerland? (3rd edition) covers events in a readable and compact form.

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