Voice in the Wind is a relatively obscure film which tells the story of Jan Volny (pronounced with a soft J like the French name Jean), a Czech citizen and his beloved wife Marya. We are first introduced to Jan on the island of Guadalupe, a safe haven for refugees of the Nazi regime. Jan is only known as El Hombre or the crazy one, as none of the other island occupants know his true identity since he himself has forgotten it and lost his memories.
Jan is treated with some wariness, but is befriended by the morally challenged Angelo, who along with his brothers owns a ship and preys on unfortunate refugees, promising to take them to America, only to steal their valuables, kill them and toss them into the sea.
The local bar owner, another friend, allows Jan the use of his piano on which Jan continually plays the same song over and over while staring into space. In flash backs we see Jan as a popular concert pianist preparing for his last concert in his home country before emigrating to America with Marya to escape the Nazi occupation. A Nazi soldier stops by to warn him not to play The Moldau, a musical symbol of Czech patriotism, but during his encore Jan defies this order.
Following the concert Jan arranges for Marya to escape to Paris without him, despite her insistent cries that she won’t go and her fear that she will never see him again. He is soon arrested, questioned and tortured by the Nazi’s and it is their brutality which leads to his fragile mental state and transformation into something a little less than human.
Unbeknownst to him, Marya also happens to be on the same island suffering from pneumonia, but when she hears Jan playing the beloved Moldau, she knows that he has kept his promise to return to her and climbs out of her bed to search out his location by following the music.
Voice in the Wind is a very dark film and yet I feel a very important one, particularly since many comparisons can be made between the events portrayed and the genocide happening in the Middle East today. Hollywood released many propaganda films during WWII to stir up sentiment against the Nazis. Although this would qualify as one of those, it is not nearly as well known as others. Yet I believe it is one of the more effective and powerful ones, specifically due to its’ desolate plot. Unlike other propaganda films, this one does not have a happy ending and many of the characters die, but it is precisely that risk of showing the realism with no happy ending which makes this film so powerful.
The cruelty of the occupying forces against Jan and Marya, not only in driving them apart, but the torturous treatment of Jan at their hands and the theft of their hope is disturbing. In making Jan a famous pianist, the film underscores that no one is truly safe in such circumstances, as many might assume that Jan’s prominence in his homeland would protect him.
This movie also shows the wickedness of those who prey on the innocent and helpless refugees. Such people take advantage of those who have already lost everything and endured much trauma, using their desperation against them and profiting at their expense. In my opinion, this is as equally tragic as the circumstances which have caused the refugees to flee, because it is another blow to their hope. Sometimes, it’s not the blow which knocks you to your knees, but the final one that knocks you on the ground which is the most painful.
Francis Lederer who plays Jan was himself a Czech citizen whose career had begun in German cinema. So this part would have been rather personal, I think. Lederer appeared in other propaganda films against the Nazis so I assume that even though Germany gave him his start, like other Hollywood emigres, he was against their regime. I have seen him playing supporting characters in other films, but aside from his starring role as an illegal immigrant in the Ginger Rogers film Romance in Manhattan (which I highly recommend), this really is one of the more memorable roles I’ve seen him play.
Voice in the Wind is shot in the cinematic style of film noir, with almost all the scenes happening at night and the emphasis on light and shadow, particularly the shadow, heightening the impact of the story and its’ bleakness. Additionally, the use of The Moldau as a plot device is one of the main threads that runs through this film tying the present and past together.
The background sounds also play an important part in setting the tone of the film with marching footsteps emphasizing the dominance of the Nazis in the flashbacks and the continual whistle of the refugee ships lurking as a melancholy reminder that the hope of escape is not guaranteed.
The opening and closing scenes of the choppy ocean waves drive home the effects of feeling overwhelmed and overcome that Jan and Marya experience as they fight not to sink beneath the darkness of their circumstances.
Despite the fact that this films ends in tragedy, it is also a very realistic ending. But that despair is somewhat lifted by the lingering final shot of a lit candle signalling that darkness cannot ever truly conquer the light.