Quezon's Game

Quezon's Game

Image by Quezon's Game

Daniel Nelson 

I can't make up my mind about films based on real people and events, like Quezon's Game.

I fear them because the images and words are so powerful that it's impossible to shake them out of your mind, even when you know the dialogue is made up, that characters are left out or relationships invented for dramatic effect.

Yet fiction can also tell truths. Catch 22 has as much truth about war as a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Perhaps more truth. 

Quezon's Game renews my dilemma. It portrays real people and tells a real story, of how president Manuel Quezon persuaded, cajoled, tricked and manoeuvred the Germans and Americans (the latter still in control of his country) to allow thousands of Jews to escape Nazi persecution and move to safety in The Philippines. But it's not a documentary: it makes up speeches of which an ancient Greek orator would be proud (as well as some clunky clichés); shows historical figures such as US-President-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower but presents him as a young man rather than the experienced figure he was at the time; it concertinas or omits events in the narrative that give a false impression of the context and impact of this stirring tale.

On top of this reordering of people and events in order to make the story more vivid (and simple and understandable) to a modern audience, director Matthew Rosen uses lush cinematography to create a visual world of its own, with pastel colours, men in white suits and a permanent haze of cigar smoke. (The film's best joke comes in the final credits, which assure a worried audience that no smokers were harmed in the making of the film.)

I am conscious of the time-shifts, the falsities, the heightening of drama and of personal relationships, but a well-made film such as this sneaks its view of history into your mind so that the manufactured images trump your intellect’s reservations.

Rosen unashamedly tugs – well, wrenches – at the heartstrings, harnessing every cliché in the cinematic toolbox - from a comic book Nazi (who to be fair, is counterbalanced by a US senator whose vicious anti-Semitism rates Jews as “even worse” than the Blacks) to Quezon’s wife’s discovery of blood on her husband’s TB-infected handkerchief. In addition, some of the film’s conversations seem to have been indiscriminately harvested from a cornfield. These two weaknesses, together with elements of the lovingly over-mannered camerawork, distanced me from the tear-jerk speeches and enabled me to stop myself being seduced into believing the evidence of my eyes and suckering me into thinking that I was seeing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And yet…

…it’s an interesting story, if now little more than an inconsequential historical oddity, about a leader, a country, an incident, that few people know about, and about which, without this film, in a few years even fewer people will know. And how good it is to see the leader of an Asian country as the hero of an international biopic. And how heart-warming for a story to focus on a politician acting on a humanitarian impulse. And how important in a moment of resurgent anti-Semitism, anti refugee hatred to be reminded of the needs and benefits of refugees.

Then, as the final credits roll, we get thumbnail pictures and interview snatches with a handful of Jews whose lives were saved by Quezon’s rescue (“There was no discrimination. And that for a Jew was a very new experience”) and you can’t help thinking that this is the most moving part of the film, and that these brief testimonies justify every work that remembers any aspect of Hitler’s monstrous crime and those who supported and opposed it. Quezon’s Game can stand proud as one of those memorials.

+ Conversation with director Matthew Rosen.


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