Sisters of War

SISTERS OF WAR. Telemovie. Starring Claire van der Boom, Sarah Snook, Khan Chittenden, Anna Volska, Gerald Lepkowski and Susie Porter. Directed by Brendan Maher. 95 minutes. Rated PG.

A World War II memoir that re-creates events in New Britain during the Japanese invasion and occupation, a story of interest to all Australians who want to know more about the war and the experience of Australian soldiers, nurses – and nun s.  Screened in the aftermath of the celebrations for the canonisation of Mary McKillop and extensive media reporting about Mary and about the Josephite sisters, here is a story about the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, especially Sister Berenice Twohill and her working with and growing friendship with nursing sister, Lorna Whyte.  Audiences expecting a treatment in the soft vein, will be surprised at the tough core of the film.

The background of the mission in Vunapope outside Rabaul is a story in itself.  It was established by German Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and staffed by the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (of French origin) who were excluded from working in German territories at the end of the 19th century, so a new congregation of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was established with German sisters.  By 1940, when Vunapope had been built up into a thriving mission town, the priests, brothers and sisters were mainly German and Australian.

As the film shows, the Australians pulled out leaving the nurses and wounded who took refuge in Vunapope.  They were captured and about to be executed when Bishop Leo Scharmach MSC bluffed the Japanese by saying that he was the representative of Hitler and his people could not be executed.  This saved their lives but, especially for some dramatic tension in the film, Lorna Whyte is suspicious of the bishop and thinks he is an informant for the Japanese, especially for the rounding up of Australian soldiers hiding in the jungle. Bishop Scharmach had a Germanic autocratic touch but was constant in his attempts to deal with the Japanese to save lives.

However, the bishop plays a supporting role in the film which is the story of the nurse and the nun.  Lorna Whyte, along with the squad of nurses, does her best with their limited resources to save soldiers’ lives.  The sisters become gradually involved, especially when they are confined to the convent/hospital area.  Sister Berenice is awkward at first, devout in the style of the 1930s and 1940s, but with a blend of common-sense and faith.  The two women get to understand one another – and their friendship has endured for the best part of seventy years.

The performances in the film are strong and credible.  Sarah Snook has to carry most of the dramatic side of the film as Lorna Whyte, Aussie woman in captivity, dealing with uncertainties and sudden atrocities, with a certain Protestant scepticism about nuns.  The final years of the war were spent in Japan by the nurses in hard labour until they were liberated by the Americans.  The film does not shirk any of this hardship.  And earlier scenes of hospital treatment are quite graphic.

The sisters stay in Vunapope until it is flattened by bombing raids and the Japanese transfer the mission personnel to Ramale valley where they are finally found by Australian troops.

It should be said that the production values are quite high, the use of Queensland locations for New Britain, with an authentic feel and look.  The film does not look like a low-budget feature.

The cast is strong as well.  Sarah Snook is able to combine fortitude with vulnerability.  Claire van der Boom has the more difficult role playing Sister Berenice, helping the audience understand the transitions that happened in her life, from a devoted missionary with the people of New Britain, to a necessary ‘worldliness’ to deal with the Japanese physical and psychological violence, to help the soldiers, to be sensitive to frightened young Japanese soldiers, to learn that wars begin with hatred, to draw on inner strength for leadership.

Susie Porter does fine work as Kay Parker the matron and stands out in several scenes, defying the advances of the Japanese commander, rallying the nurses, hands on with tending the soldiers, and a final moving scene in Japan where an officer, crazed with grief and the death of his wife and children, threatens the women and the matron offers an empathy that contributes to the officer’s backing off and weeping.

Bishop Scharmach is played by Scots actor, Gerald Lepkowski, an ambiguous figure for the nurses and, perhaps, for the audience, as we see his efforts to save people’s lives which some, like Lorna, initially interpret as collaboration.  He has the touch of the prince bishop until Lorna removes shrapnel from near his carotid artery and he has to bend – until he finally feels he has dried up inside.  Nevertheless Sister Berenice demands that he assist a dying indigenous sister.

In fact, there are many fine vignettes in John Misto’s screenplay with Brendan Maher’s sympathetic direction.  Some are surprising, like Bishop Scharmach going from giving communion to his congregation to the wire fence where three Japanese Catholic soldiers also receive.  The women put on a musical evening with songs from The Mikado, Sister Berenice intoning ‘Deferred... to the Lord High Executioner’ when the commanding officer arrives.  It could have cost them their lives, as they realise, but they also say it was funny.  And it is.

The happy ending comes with many tears but some of the tears are from seeing Lorna and Sister Berenice in 2010, still admirable women who show us the value of life.

From a Catholic point of view, we can be pleased that a film has been made about these people and these significant events, with respect and with insight, that shows religious men and women with their strengths and their weaknesses – and heroism.

[Yes, the script does have Bishop Scharmach saying that he ‘ordained’ Sister Maria; and there is a picture in the background of Saint Maria Goretti who was not canonised until 1950.  But the screenplay overall gets it right.]

Bishop Scharmach wrote a memoir, This Crowd Beats Us All.  Ken Scully, Catholic Weekly journalist, wrote the story of Fr Ted Harris MSC, who helped Australian soldiers escape from New Britain and was executed by the Japanese, Every Man for Himself.  Gillian Nikakis wrote He’s Not Coming Home about Rabaul.  Sister Berenice’s memoir, Just one of the Crowd, The internment of Sister Berenice of Rabaul, is from Austinmer, 1983.

Sisters of War was based on research by auctioneer, Rod Miller, who came across a journal by a nurse in Rabaul and continued to gather more information about the events in New Britain.

The ABC also screened a 10 minute ‘extra’ for the DVD release, a meeting between Sister Berenice and Lorna Whyte, a vigorous exchange and vivid memories still, which shows how full of life, despite their hardships, these two women still are, over 65 years later.

Audiences may be familiar with A Town Like Alice, from Nevil Shute’s novel, the 1956 film version and the later television mini-series.  A fine treatment of women interned in Sumatra (including a Dutch nun) is in Bruce Beresford’s Paradise Road.  For Catholic interest (and beyond), John Duigan’s film of war photographer, Damien Parer, Fragments of War, shows the war in the Pacific.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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