“A Friendship in Vienna,” airing on the Disney Channel Saturday at 7 p.m., is that rare pleasure--a family film of maturity and substance.
Based on Doris Orgel’s book “Devil in Vienna,” Richard Alfieri’s sensitive teleplay chronicles a friendship between two 13-year-old girls--one Jewish, one Catholic--that endures through the tragedy of the Anschluss (Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938).
Both families are aghast at the connection. Lise (Kamie Harper) is beaten by her father, a high Nazi official, for supporting Inge (Jenny Lewis) in school. Inge, who learns too quickly that “safety is an illusion,” sees her family humiliated and endangered.
Without a breath of false sentimentality, we see what childhood becomes in the face of oppression and what uncompromising integrity means in the name of friendship.
The cast is flawless. Edward Asner, in a subtle performance as the Jewish grandfather and an impassioned voice of reason, has never been better. Jane Alexander, who plays Inge’s mother, once again shows herself to be one of the most graceful actresses working in film, and Stephen Macht, as her husband who refuses to see his world inexorably changing, carries his denial and pain with dignity.
With a depth that belies their years, Harper and Lewis are alternately strong and vulnerable. When the girls are separated and Lise tells Inge she’ll think of her every day “like a prayer,” it is a moment of adult delicacy.
When Inge’s parents balk at lying about their religion for survival and Inge asks, “Why should we give the truth to someone who will kill us with it?,” it’s not precocity but the harshly acquired wisdom of a child for whom truth is as integral as her own heartbeat.
The rest of the cast gives equally strong support, from Ferdinand Mayne’s troubled Catholic priest to Kenna Kendall as a loyal housekeeper, Jeff Kizer’s blackmailing Hitler youth and John Cameron Mitchell as a young martyr to freedom’s cause.
Arthur Allan Seidelman’s sure directorial touch is evident throughout, allowing for neither self-indulgence nor saccharinity. Further enhanced by Jean Simmons’ narration and a richly evocative look (it was filmed in Budapest), this is a film to treasure.