Film diary: Ship of Fools (1965)

“I really wonder if life is as meaningless and stupid as it seems to be on this ship.”

Such is the depressing viewpoint of Wilhelm Schumann (Oskar Werner), the doctor on an ocean-liner sailing to Germany in 1933.

Based on Katherine Ann Porter’s novel, Ship of Fools was directed by Stanley Kramer with a screenplay by Abby Mann. The film received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and won two: Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

Ship of Fools is, to me, such an extraordinary film. Even with the different storylines unfolding, the structure and premise of the film are both quite simple. As the year is 1933, with all of the action happening during an ocean voyage to Germany, the film is concerned with the rise of Nazism, although not all the passengers discuss it. You could argue that their foolishness stems from being unaware, so wrapped up they all are in their own petty dramas.

This film is more character than plot driven with richly sketched individuals. The first fool we meet is Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn), a dwarf who breaks the fourth wall to introduce himself and inform us that we may recognize ourselves in the other fools.

Captain Thiele (Michael Korvin) and Dr. Schumann are in the cabin discussing the ship and its passengers. The captain is reluctant to join the passengers for dinner at his table and sends the begrudging doctor in his place. Seated at this table are a married couple and their dog; an elderly woman; a man named Freytag; Lizzi Spokenkieker, a beautiful blonde; and magazine publisher Siegfried Rieber (Jose Ferrer). Rieber has no qualms spewing his anti-Semitic hate, but his fellow Germans do not challenge him.

Julius Lowenthal, a Jewish salesman and Glocken are the only two Germans not invited to the captain’s table. Both of them take this in stride.

Other first class passengers include a Spanish dancing troupe; La Condesa (Simone Signoret), a Cuban countess being deported to a Spanish prison; Jenny and David, an American couple who are the least interesting; Bill Tenny (Lee Marvin), a washed up baseball player; and American divorcee Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh).

Although most of the action takes place on the First Class deck, other scenes involve the passengers in steerage. They are workers being deported to Spain from Cuba. That’s 600 people in cramped living conditions with just one water spigot. There’s a pregnant woman among them. The ship’s design, with the upper class at the top and the lower class at the bottom reminded me of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer. That film portrayed class struggle with the wealthy and privileged in clean, sterile, extravagant train compartments, while the lower dregs of society are confined to the filthy tail section. Given that outbreaks of the corona virus also plagued cruise ships in the last year, I found myself wondering about illness on this ship too.

I watched Malcolm & Marie recently, and I honestly think Sam Levinson based his insufferable characters on David and Jenny and their tiresome bickering. If their scenes had been cut from the film, it would’ve been an improvement.

Someone claimed Lee Marvin was miscast, but I disagree. His screen image is a villainous one, with his staggering portrayals of violence. But playing a pathetic man with frustrated dreams, he displays volatile emotions and internalizes that violence. I think it’s one of Lee’s strongest performances, the one where he was at most vulnerable. Vivien Leigh’s performance is revelatory. It was her third time playing a Southern lady. Mrs. Treadwell is deeply cynical, having failed in love. Not only was her husband unfaithful, he also beat her.

La Condesa and Dr. Schumann kindle a romance that is not to be. Their scenes are tender with just a hint of sadness.

These passengers exhibit varying degrees of foolishness. David believes Jenny should give up her own ambition and goals to focus on him. Jenny doesn’t take his class consciousness, and the way it seeps into his art, seriously.

Bill Tenny can’t let go of his shattered dreams and drowns his sorrows in alcohol.

Mary Treadwell clings to her youth, scorns love, but still desires it. Again I have to draw attention to Leigh’s performance. She reminds me of a wilted flower. There is a sense of grandeur about her, the same kind Blanche Dubois has in A Streetcar Named Desire. Mrs. Treadwell is beautiful and sophisticated, but she’s like a crumpled gown you find at the bottom of a trunk.

You are not young, Mrs. Treadwell. You have not been young for years. Behind those old eyes, you hide a sixteen year old heart. Poor fool.

Rieber is an unapologetic anti-Semite, but the other Germans are more foolish than he because they let him share his hateful ideology. This scene in particular is a visual demonstration, with him in devil horns, but yet the good people around him look just as silly, and of course, are too polite to defend Jewish people. One of the women at the table remarks that he is a true anti-Semite, but she doesn’t know any Jewish people. Do you need to know someone of any group personally in order to call out racism?

I also find it striking that the young Lizzi takes no issue with Rieber’s views. I thought she’d be enlightened, or find him to be an extremist. But her beauty belies her prejudice. What does the captain say to Rieber’s plans for eugenics and genocide?

I like to listen to Herr Rieber. Every time I listen to him, I feel reassured. I know no one could ever take him or his party seriously.

Keep in mind that this man is steering the ship. When our leaders don’t denounce these sorts of values, we are all at risk.

Lowenthal for all his kindness and civility towards the Germans who openly insult and ignore him, is also a fool. He believes that the Third Reich cannot kill all the Jewish people in Germany. We don’t know if he will meet the same end as the other six million European Jews. One of the most chilling scenes occurs briefly at the end when the passengers disembark. One of them is greeted by a relative wearing a swastika armband. The terror that would then unfold was still just ahead of them all on the horizon. Some could see it clearly and others refused.

Maybe it’s only bad people who are racist and anti-Semitic. But all it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. We’re all fools making the same journey.

“When I think of the things I have seen on this ship. The stupid cruelties. the vanities. We talk about values? There’s no values. The dung we base our lives on.

We are the intelligent, civilized people who carry out orders we are given. Mo matter what they may be. Our biggest mission in life is to avoid being fools. And we wind up being the biggest fools of all.


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