A British-Based Nazi Finishing School Is the Focus of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Six Minutes To Midnight’
When it came time to write her first feature, Eddie Izzard was inspired by an intriguing chapter in the history of her hometown of Bexhill-on-Sea, England. From 1932 to 1939, the seaside town was the location of a finishing school for young German woman who were the daughters and goddaughters of elite members of the Nazi party, and the goal of the Augusta-Victoria College was to prepare its pupils to possibly marry English men and integrate into English high society, ostensibly to strengthen relationships between the two countries. The result of Izzard’s dedicated research is the historical thriller “Six Minutes to Midnight.” Although Izzard is a gifted comedian, she gets very serious to play the fictional role of Thomas Miller, a new teacher/spy who finds himself on the run after being framed for murder.
England and Germany are on the brink of war when Thomas is hired by Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), the school’s kind yet stern headmistress. The other teacher at the school is Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), a clever and physically fit young woman who almost swam for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. She’s later revealed to be anti-Semitic, so she’s basically Hitler’s ideal woman. Mr. Miller turns out to be an engaging English teacher, but just as he’s starting to make a positive impact on the young ladies and making some headway on saving their hearts and minds, the body of Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), Thomas’ predecessor, washes up on the shore, setting in motion a chain of events that find Thomas running for his life.
“Six Minutes to Midnight” was directed by Andy Goddard, who is best known for helming some of the most memorable episodes of “Downton Abbey.” Goddard, who is currently working on the second season of “Carnival Row,” took time out of his busy schedule to have a Zoom chat with Entertainment Voice about his latest feature. Like Izzard, he found the history of the Augusta-Victoria College fascinating. “It was just a curious footnote in history that I hadn’t heard about that had kind of been swept under the carpet,” he said.
While “Six Minutes to Midnight” is largely a fictional story, it brings to light issues that are as relevant now as they were in 1939, as it explores how something being sold as “national pride” quickly evolves into extremism. “The rise of the far right, hate crimes, those things are all in the ether,” explained Goddard. “Has it ever gone away? Not really. As Eddie always reminds me, facism wasn’t just a German problem. It’s a human problem.”
While Izzard and Goddard, along with co-writer Celyn Jones, wanted to explore those issues pertaining to the rise of evil, their goal all along was to make a gripping period thriller in the style of classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.” We certainly see this in Thomas’ journey, as he evades dangerous traitor Captain Drey (James D’Arcy). While the viewer knows that he has to do his part to save democracy as well as himself, it is a shame he is forced away from the girls so soon in the story, because the scenes in the school are the most fascinating. As Charlie (Jim Broadbent), the local bus driver who comes to Thomas’ aid in a key moment, says early on, “Childhood is made in a few summers,” and the girls are enjoying what is to be their last season before war breaks out and they lose their innocence.
“I’m reminding the audience that these were just girls. They had this Nazi label thrust upon them, but left to their own devices, teenage girls want to talk about boys. They don’t want to talk about any of that,” said Goddard, referring to some of the sinister facist and racist ideology Ilse slowly introduces into her lessons. “The tone came from that sense of innocence against this bigger canvass of impending war.”
As for the girls, who make up the heart and soul of the film, they are played by actresses mostly unknown to English-speaking audiences that Goddard and his team auditioned in Berlin. The strongest performance comes from Tijan Marei as Gretel, the bookish outsider who shows great bravery. “Having that European dynamic in a film with a national treasure like Judie Dench, it was a lovely demographic to play with on a performance level.”
The always great Dench gives another stirring performance here as Miss Rocholl, the most conflicted character who is also the only one based on a real person. While she has great affection for Ilse and the girls and takes great pride in her job and the role she is playing in not only bringing up fine young ladies, but also in strengthening Anglo-German relationships, we see her become uncomfortable with the rise of Nazism. All of this leads to an emotional final act in which she realizes who Ilse, a woman she trusted and nurtured, truly is.
“It was kind of always a list of one: Judi,” said Goddard when asked about casting Miss Rocholl. Fortunately, Izzard had a preexisting relationship with the Oscar winner, having co-starred with her in “Victoria & Abdul.” “The thing with Judi Dench, audiences feel like they know her and love her… It was a big ask for the audience to go with a character who at various points in the film is apologizing for liking Hitler. The fact it’s Judi Dench, there is an added layer.”
Then there’s Ilse, the outwardly sunny, friendly face of facism, played perfectly by rising star Juri. Her character gives the viewer insight into the minds of Nazis and extremists in general. Are they all inherently evil, or are some of them decent people who got sucked into hateful ideology? Goddard believes that latter. “I think she’s born during the wrong time, and forces greater than her force her down this wrong path. But we didn’t want it to be black or white. We didn’t want her to be this 2-D Nazi villain. We wanted to show this young woman who is torn and is just being molded and shaped by events bigger than her, and the biggest historical seismic shift of the twentieth century was about to happen, and she’s being maneuvered.”
When asked what he hopes the 2021 viewer takes away from “Six Minutes to Midnight,” Goddard expressed his hope that they are entertained by the thriller aspects while also thinking about the deeper themes. “If people talk about some of the themes in our film over a beer and a pizza afterwards, then that’s a good thing. We all live across borders, and maybe if we held hands a little more, the world might be a better place.”
“Six Minutes to Midnight” releases March 26 on VOD and in select theaters.