Refugees are much in the news now, though the U.S. media commonly refers to the Syrians struggling to enter Europe as “migrants.” The reason: Together with genuine refugees fleeing from slaughter are so-called economic migrants seeking a better life in the West — and a news article is not always the best place to sort them out.
But in the wake of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland and its subsequent conquest of Europe, Jews living under Nazi rule were marked for death. The ones who fled were refugees in the starkest sense of the word.
As Cellin Gluck’s World War II-era biopic “Persona Non Grata” (“Sugihara Chiune”) shows us, life or death for those desperate Jews often came down to a piece of paper stamped “visa” and the policy — or whims — of the embassy or consulate that issued it. One such stamper was Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania — who issued transit visas from July 18 to Aug. 28, 1940, that saved an estimated 6,000 Jewish lives.
By doing this good deed Sugihara defied not only instructions from his superiors in Tokyo, who did not want impoverished, stateless Jews descending on Japan, but also the foreign policy of the Japanese government, which had allied itself with the Nazis. In fact, his act of mercy went against the grain of the rule-stickling, responsibility-avoiding Japanese bureaucracy, then and now.
The film, which was shot mostly in Poland with an international cast and staff, tries to explain the mystery of Sugihara (who went by “Senpo,” an easy-to-pronounce alternative reading of his given name), but does not venture far beyond standard screen hagiography. And the script, by Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo, is a plodding, literal-minded history lesson, with characters spouting platitudes and emoting cliches. Even so, something of the man and his story fitfully emerges from the teary murk.
A fluent Russian speaker, Sugihara is posted to Harbin, Manchuria, in 1924 and falls in love with a Russian woman, Irina (Agnieszka Grochowska). But when he becomes a pawn in a scheme of the Japanese military to wrest control of a strategic railroad owned by the Soviets — and Irina witnesses the death of innocent victims — she blames Sugihara. Though he protests loudly against the scheme to his superiors, Sugihara is labeled persona non grata by the Soviet government.
Assigned to the consulate in Kaunas in 1939, Sugihara hires a Polish intelligence officer, Pesh (Borys Szyc), as his driver and together they gather intelligence on the Nazis and Soviets. The Japanese Foreign Ministry needs to know the true intentions of both following the signing of the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. In the course of their work Pesh becomes Sugihara’s friend and confidant.
Then the Soviets announce their occupation of independent Lithuania and the country’s Jews are in danger of being served up to Hitler. When refugees gather by the hundreds at the consulate gate to beg for visas, Sugihara’s kind-hearted wife, Yukiko (Koyuki), urges him to do the right thing. Sugihara, already opposed to what he sees as Japan’s suicidal foreign policy, doesn’t require much persuading.
As Sugihara, veteran Toshiaki Karasawa is admirably earnest, lamentably stiff. Was it the strain of delivering so many lines in English — or playing what the film frames as a secular saint?
Fortunately, Szyc’s Pesh is wily and tough as a spy and sincere as an ally of his embattled boss. And Grochowska’s Irina projects passion and purity reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca,” if with fewer good lines.
Irena’s character is a fiction invented to elide the real Sugihara’s divorce from a Russian woman in 1935 prior to his return to Japan and marriage with Yukiko. Not quite saintly behavior? It doesn’t really matter now, does it?
But in “Persona Non Grata” the hero’s halo must remain untarnished — and the brighter it glows, the deeper the movie sinks into treacle, with no exit (visa) in sight.