Director returns home to screen ‘Complicit’ at Rehoboth Beach Jewish Film Festival

Film explores U.S. role in rejecting Jewish refugees on board the SS St. Louis in 1939

Ellen Driscoll

April 3, 2018

“Complicit” director Michael Ivan Schwartz, formerly of Lewes, screens his award-winning film at the Rehoboth Beach Jewish Film Festival March 24.

Baltimore filmmaker Michael Ivan Schwartz returned to Lewes to screen his sold-out 2013 documentary “Complicit” at the third annual Rehoboth Beach Jewish Film Festival March 24.

“I actually learned to film professionally here,” Schwartz said. “Bill Sammons of Watermark Productions gave me my start.” 

After graduating from the University of Delaware and working in Denver and Nashville, the Philadelphia-area native took what he called a self-imposed sabbatical and in 2000, moved in with a college friend in Lewes. With family also living nearby, he settled into the community and coached JV boys lacrosse at Sussex Tech under then-head coach Jeff “Moose” Mohr. 

“Moose wanted me to stay in the area, so he introduced me to Bill. And what was supposed to be a year for me here turned into four,” Schwartz said.

Sammons mentored and trained him on the job for several years, until Schwartz gained the skills and confidence needed to work solo. 

“I was ready for a more diverse, urban environment, so I moved to Baltimore.”

There, he launched Loud Communications, a freelance video production company specializing in nonprofit causes. His work caught the eye of retired lawyer and screenwriter Robert Krakow, already at work researching and interviewing subjects for what would become the film “Complicit.” Schwartz signed on to edit and direct.

“Complicit” tells the story of the SS St. Louis, the ocean liner that sailed from Hamburg to Cuba in 1939 with more than 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. Only a handful of passengers were permitted to enter Cuba, so the St. Louis then headed to the Florida coast only to be turned away by the U.S. government within sight of its palm trees and hotels. When Canada next rejected the refugees, the ship returned to Europe, docking in Belgium, where passengers were divided among the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Approximately one-third of the Jews who returned to Europe died during the Holocaust. 

The film blends period photos and video of the ship and its passengers, interviews with survivors who were children during its voyage, footage of a 2012 U.S. State Department public apology and a mythical courtroom drama that puts Franklin D. Roosevelt on trial for complicity in crimes against humanity.

The award-winning film has been screened at festivals worldwide and in 2016 was added to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem as part of its permanent film archives.