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A still from the 2020 film Quezon's Game.
Quezon’s Game tells the story of how the Philippines’ president let in more than 1,100 European Jewish refugees in the late 1930s.
I’ve long been a fan of films that show what nations other than America were up to around the Second World War. 2008’s Max Manus is a ripping yarn about a Norwegian saboteur. The 11th Day from 2005 documents the 1941 Battle of Crete, during which Greek civilians rose up against Nazi paratroopers. And I hear there’s a movie or two about some of Britain’s exploits.
Quezon’s Game, a low-budget, big-hearted docudrama from British-born Filipino director Matthew Rosen, tells the story of how the Philippines’ president Manuel Quezon overcame opposition at home and in America (the country was then a U.S.-administered commonwealth) to allow more than 1,100 European Jewish refugees into his territory in the late 1930s.
As president, Quezon had much to lose from this risky gambit, but Rosen’s film celebrates various other players as well, chief among them Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion), a Jewish-American cigar manufacturer who regularly played poker with the president and with future U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, then a colonel stationed in Manila.
Rosen backs into the tale, opening first in post-war New York before moving to pre-war Vienna and finally to 1938 Manila, which is where the story really gets going. Frieder, distressed to discover that the new head of security at the German embassy has arrived in full SS garb, decides to do something to help Jewish refugees, of which a handful have recently arrived from Shanghai. Quezon, who bumps into one of said refugees and hears the man’s story, becomes similarly inspired.
They want to bring in 10,000 souls, and while the German ambassador readily agrees to provide exit visas for these “Jewish problems,” American officials are less keen to allow what they view as Communist sympathizers and rabble-rousers into a U.S. protectorate. Recall the fate of the MS St. Louis, which in 1939 sailed from Germany with 907 Jewish refugees, but was denied entry to Cuba, the U.S. and Canada; it eventually returned to what would soon be occupied Europe.
Quezon’s Game is adequate if ultimately uninspired; the cinematography is of the standard people-in-rooms variety, while the actors sometimes overplay their roles, not least the villainous new embassy hire. And baby-faced David Bianco is woefully miscast as Eisenhower, who at that time was pushing 50.
The screenplay is similarly by-the-numbers, with characters lecturing others on their points of view, and Quezon hawking blood into his handkerchief so we know he’s not well. And there’s a moment of unintentional comedy when Frieder is denied entrance to the local German Club by a doorman who pretends to check the reservations list while surreptitiously flipping to a page of names labeled: “Jews.”
But one can forgive much of a movie whose spirit is so willing. And the history it tells is stirring. Frieder, speaking in 1939, said Quezon made enemies over his plan, but “he assured us that, big or little, he raised hell with every one of those persons. He made them ashamed of themselves for being a victim of propaganda intended to further victimize an already persecuted people.” His was a rare attitude on the eve of the Holocaust.
Quezon’s Game opens in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 24, and across Canada on Jan. 31.
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